The Joy of His Reign
In the book of Daniel—chapter 4—we find one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. We see the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who is profoundly proud of the massive and powerful kingdom he has built.
One night he has a dream he doesn’t understand, so he calls Daniel, a Hebrew prophet who has been exiled to Babylon, to come and interpret his dream (because he’s done it before). We won’t read the passage, because it’s quite long, but basically Daniel interprets his dream by telling Nebuchadnezzar that he’s going to go insane. He’s going to lose his mind and live outside like an animal, and that he will stay this way for a decent period of time (he says in Daniel 4.25), till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.
The King hears this, forgets it, and then about a year later, he’s standing on the roof of his palace and looking out over the kingdom, and he’s congratulating himself on the wonderful kingdom he’s built. And as he’s saying these words, a voice comes from heaven and basically says, “Remember that dream you had a year ago? Yeah—it’s time.”
And BOOM—the king loses his mind. He is driven from his kingdom and lives outside like an animal for several years.
Then one day, at the right time, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and his reason came back to him in an instant. And what does he do? He doesn’t curse God for making him go through this difficulty—he praises God. He says (Daniel 4.34-37):
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
This story is one of the clearest stories in the whole Bible of what happens when a human being realizes that God is the only one who deserves glory, and not ourselves. What happens when we realize that is counterintuitive: we would imagine that realizing we are created beings, in control of absolutely nothing, would depress us.
But that’s not what happens. Realizing that God is glorious, that God is on the throne, and that he is in control, is a completely wonderful thing.
And that is what Psalm 97 is about.
the reign of God (v. 1-5)
Verse 1 sets the tone for the entire psalm:
1 The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
So already, in just a handful of words, this psalm tells us what so many of us refuse to believe: that God reigns over all creation, and his reign is a wonderful thing.
It’s very hard for us to believe this. The well-known atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens said this:
“I think it would be rather awful if [God existed]. If there was a permanent, total, round-the-clock divine supervision and invigilation of everything you did, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being watched and controlled and supervised by some celestial entity from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death… It would be like living in North Korea.”
Now, if we’re honest, most of us can sympathize with this. And what he says would be true if God were a cruel dictator, interested only in the accumulation of his own power, and mindless of the needs of his subjects.
But that’s not who God is; this psalm—indeed, the whole of the Bible—tells us exactly the opposite: that because God is a good God, his reign is something that should cause every person on earth to rejoice.
This psalm is all about why God’s glory and his supremacy and his reign is a beautiful thing.
1 The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
3 Fire goes before him
and burns up his adversaries all around.
4 His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
5 The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The Lord reigns, and that is the supreme reason for joy.
And part of why his reign is so joyous is that God is up to the task. Reigning over the world is not difficult for him. We see in these verses some of the best poetic descriptions of God’s power in the entire Bible.
When verse 2 says that clouds and thick darkness are all around him, and verse 3 says that fire goes before him, those are pictures of God’s presence and his glory. If you remember, when the Israelites built the tabernacle in the desert, and God descended to inhabit the Most Holy Place, how did his glory manifest itself? By a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.
God’s glory is everything he is—all of his perfect attributes—made visible. Two of those attributes are mentioned here, in v. 2—his righteousness and his justice. God is perfectly righteous, morally pure in every way; and he is perfectly just. His righteousness and his justice are the foundation of his throne, the foundation of his reign.
And that is why (v. 3) Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around. Nothing impure can stand in his presence.
God is not just good, but goodness itself. So if you are an adversary of God, you are necessarily an adversary of all that is good.
So it sounds almost simplistic to say it this way, but God’s reign is good because God never does wrong.
And then the psalmist takes it further: righteousness and justice are the foundation of his reign, which means his reign is good; and that reign is also characterized by power—which is why his reign is effective.
A couple weeks ago I was in Florida, which is at the moment right in the middle of storm season. Every day while I was there, there was at least one powerful storm. My parents live in Lakeland, Florida, which is (literally) the lightning capital of the world. And even indoors, in the comfort of my parents’ living room, when the lightning hits the ground just up the road from where you are, everything in the house trembles. The picture frames jitter on the walls; you can feel it in your gut.
This is the image the psalmist uses to describes God’s awesome power. 4 His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
An ordinary lightning strike, which can cause the walls of a house to tremble, is nothing compared to God’s power. Even the mountains tremble before him.
It’s a striking image, because mountains are, almost by definition, the strongest things the psalmist could have imagined at the time. But before God (v. 5), the mountains melt like wax. The earth itself trembles before God’s mighty power.
A few weeks ago a new family moved into our building. They have an adorable black lab puppy who is already huge (and who, we found out, is the same age as my baby girl). We ran into them in the courtyard the other day. I was holding Zadie in my arms, and the dog clearly wanted to play, so I pet his head, and he did what puppies do: he jumped up, licked my hand, then took my forearm into his mouth and gave it a playful tug, without actually biting down. I haven’t had a dog in a long time, so it was a lot of fun for me.
I let him do it, because he wasn’t going to hurt me; he’s just a puppy.
I would never have done that if he were a lion. Because a lion could have ripped me apart.
That’s what the psalmist is getting at here: God isn’t a puppy. He’s a lion. You don’t play around with a lion; you tremble before the power of a lion, even if it is sitting still and has no intention of eating you.
God is not cruel, but he is powerful—and the earth itself knows it.
And his power is why his reign is not only good, but effective. What God intends to do, he does. He is the only being who really and truly reigns over his subjects.
the response of his people (v. 6-11)
Now at this point, the psalmist makes a subtle turn—up to now he’s been speaking about God’s reign over the earth in a general way. But at some point, we have to know how we, as human beings, are meant to respond to him.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory.
7 All worshipers of images are put to shame,
who make their boast in worthless idols;
worship him, all you gods!
Whether we know it or not, we can all see God’s glory. It’s as easy as going outside and looking up. Anyone who has seen a sunset, or the coming of a storm on the horizon, or the stars at night (not in Paris, obviously, because of light pollution—go out to the country and you’ll see it), has seen God’s glory.
So think of a sunset, and keep it in your mind for a minute. Try to picture it.
In the light of that picture, worshiping anything besides God is flat-out embarrassing.
We may not think we worship other gods, but idolatry is the biggest temptation any of us face. (You could even say that every temptation is, at its core, a temptation to idolatry.)
Idolatry is not limited to worshiping images; it is making anything else besides God the center of our lives and our desires.
And it’s surprising, the things which can take that place when we let that happen.
When I was nineteen I was still technically living with my parents, but one of my best friends had her own apartment, and a group of us were always over at her place. We were like a little commune: we all had keys to the apartment, we all had things we left there, and at least two or three nights a week we’d end up sleeping on the floor. We spent countless hours on her balcony, eating and drinking and laughing and talking about everything and nothing.
For most of us, it was our first real taste of freedom, and it was intoxicating. Those people, and that place, became everything to me.
But no matter how much I loved them (and love them still—I talked to Rosemary just yesterday), no matter how legitimate great they were… None of those friends could produce a sunset.
How easy it is for limited, finite things to become the center of all our thoughts and desires!
And it can be anything. A sports team. A TV show. A clean house. A comfortable salary. A family. A vacation. None of the things which occupy our minds and our hearts can ever be worth the space we give them.
And the skies above our heads would remind us of that fact, if only we’d look up.
Compared to the one who set the stars in place, worshiping any other god is simply ridiculous. All worshipers of images are put to shame…
That idolatry is what characterizes everyone who doesn’t know God.
But for God’s people—even though it’s still a struggle for us—it’s different. When we see God’s glory in created things, we are not put to shame. When we look at the skies, we see God’s glory, and are reminded of his reign; and for us, God’s reign is a reason for joy.
8 Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O Lord.
9 For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
There’s a lot of historical and theological weight at play here. When the psalmist talks about “Zion,” or “the daughters of Judah,” he is talking about God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. And it’s important to say it that way, because their joy was not rooted in some kind of theoretical or philosophical notions about what God might be like. Their joy was rooted in history—in what God had done for them.
Not only have they seen his glory in the natural world; they have seen his glory in person. God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. He cared for them in the wilderness. He gave them a land in which to dwell. He delivered them from their enemies. They have seen their God at work for them—they have seen his glory not only in the world, but in his very real, historical and personal goodness to them.
And we are no different.
We don’t know exactly when this psalm was written, but we know at least that it was some time during or after the time of Moses. Already, at that point in history, the people of Israel had the testimonies of their ancestors who had seen God at work for them in the past, and they could still see God at work for them in the present.
At our point in history—today, in 2019—we have the testimonies of our past brothers and sisters, who saw God come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ; and we still see Christ at work for us today in the present.
This is why it is so important to make sure our theology is never divorced from biblical history. When we talk about the gospel, we’re not just talking about big ideas, but about something which actually happened. The gospel is not a philosophy or a way of life; it is news. It is the good news of Jesus Christ, God made man, who lived our life and died our death and was raised to declare us righteous before God.
This means that every time we see God’s hand at work in anything, we should remember what he did for us. Every sunset should remind us of the gospel.
We see a sunset, and we see God’s glory there. And because we know that God is a God who acts in history, we know that the God who made that sunset is the same God who lives in me, today, by his Spirit, because of the finished and sufficient work of Jesus Christ for us.
That is how we distinguish between the one true God and the myriad of other false gods clamoring for our attention—no other replacement god we foolishly worship could ever come close to that kind of power, that kind of authority, or that kind of goodness. No other object of our worship is worthy of the adoration we give it.
Only one God created all things, maintains all things, came to earth, saved us, and lives in us still today.
And knowing that makes us glad, causes us to rejoice. For only he is most high over all the earth, exalted far above all gods.
So the question is, if that’s the underlying reality of our lives, what should those lives look like?
The answer is very simple.
10 O you who love the Lord, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light is sown for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!
Not only is everything we’ve said so far about God true; he adds to his past and present goodness to you in Christ by caring for you still today.
He preserves your life; he delivers you from evil. He saves us, and when he saves us, he keeps us—he will protect us from falling back into evil, until the very end.
There is light and joy—every good thing—for those who follow him. No child of God is ever lacking for anything. That doesn’t mean that we will always get what we want, but we will always get what is good for us.
And because we know that, we are called to rejoice. To be thankful. To become like the God we love. To learn to hate evil as he hates evil. To love righteousness as he loves righteousness.
It’s no accident that this psalm speaks so often of God’s righteousness, and then calls us “righteous” twice in these last two verses. Those who love God, and are joyful in him, and are thankful for his grace, will progressively, but inevitably, become righteous as he is righteous.
Living for His Glory
God’s glory is the fundamental fact of life. It is the reality which undergirds all other reality. We are not ultimate. We are created beings, living under the rule of our good Creator.
Which means that our lives are going to have to undergo a pretty radical paradigm shift. Our default position in life is to love ourselves more than anything. And that doesn’t necessarily come out of arrogance, but just out of self-centered desires. By default, we construct our lives around ourselves—around our own desires, our own plans, our own self-interests. We want to build our kingdoms; we want to see our desires fulfilled.
In other words, most of us make decisions based on what we want, not based on what is true.
But what is the fundamental truth which should guide all of our desires?
V. 1: The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice...
V. 9: For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
Because we are creatures, and not the Creator, we aren’t meant for everything to revolve around us. Only God can hold that place. He is the only one who can reign without being a tyrant, and only he has the power to reign with grace.
So if we know that—if we know that only he is God—what should that truth produce in us?
V. 8: Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, because of your judgments, O Lord.
V. 12: Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!
Brothers and sisters, the most freeing realization in all the world is the realization that God reigns, so I don’t have to. That God is in control, so I don’t have to be. That God preserves my life, so I don’t have to. That weight does not have to sit on my shoulders.
In God is true, free joy, so I don’t have to endlessly search for that joy in other things. If I would just pay attention, I would see that the joy I’m seeking is right here. I already have it, if I would just enjoy it.
So if the joy of God’s people truly is in acknowledging God’s reign, and in seeing his glory, the question we should ask ourselves is: What can I do to glorify God?
In any situation, how can I best prove that I am happy and thankful and confident in God’s good judgments? (And this is not posturing—it is in living to prove our joy and gratitude and trust in God that we find joy and gratitude and trust in God.)
When Loanne and I had the opportunity to move to Lagny to intern with Acts 29, with the goal of being sent out to plant a church afterwards, we honestly had no big signs from God telling us what we should do. There was one really good reason to go—we could plant a church and see the gospel preached in an area that needed it.
But there were a lot of good reasons to stay. We had a comfortable home which we had just bought and renovated; we had comfortable jobs which brought in comfortable salaries. We had a three-month-old son at home, and we were just starting to build our lives to raise him. Moving meant not knowing where we were going to live, not knowing how we were going to earn a salary, not knowing if anyone would come to this future church, or if it would all just collapse around us.
What changed everything was when we started asking ourselves, “In which situation can we most glorify God? Not just in the church, but in our own lives?” Which choice will afford us more opportunities to tell others about him? to trust in him for our every need? to show in a concrete way that we were happy and thankful and at rest in his power?
It ended up being a very easy choice.
And that question—how can we glorify God, and show that we are joyful and thankful and trusting in him?—should guide every decision of our lives. It should guide the big decisions—choosing a profession, or a school for our kids, or a place to live.
And it should guide the way we go about the little, insignificant decisions we make all the time. Like, for instance, the decision to eat a mango. I went to Burkina Faso several years ago, and ate the best mangos of my life. And at one point, I remember intentionally praying before taking a bite, “God, you made this!” How much better is eating a mango when you know that taste was intentional? That it wasn’t just a happy accident of biology?
What is ordinary becomes an act of worship. Eating a mango. Having a baby. Buying a house. Or looking at a sunset.
Over all of these things—the great and the small—the Lord reigns. He reigns in power; he reigns in righteousness; he reigns in justice.
And so, in response to his great reign, be glad. Put your sin to death; worship nothing besides him. Look at his glory in the ordinary things you take for granted, and know that the same God who made the sun set came to earth to be your Savior, and lives in you.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!