When was the last time you found yourself trembling with emotion? Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sensation, wonder and perplexity? “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” The old American Negro Spiritual contemplates the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, rhetorically questioning the process. It’s a mournful dirge, honoring the depth of emotion of a people identifying with he scorned, forgotten and rejected Lord and Savior.
Psalm 99 is not a direct reference to the life, death or resurrection of Jesus our Lord, rather it is considered the last among the “enthronement psalms.” It ascribes to God our Creator the praise due incomparable, universal majesty. Indeed the tone of the Psalm 99 is not mournful or funeral-appropriate but a soaring song of wonder, celebration and praise.
What sorts of things would cause us to tremble with awe at God’s presence in our world? Psalm 99 is an embodied response to the reality of God’s manifestation in the life and community of the writer.
Three affirmations of the psalm give us something to tremble about: God’s presence is universal. Verses one and two speak of a global, all encompassing kind of presence — one that affects the foundations of the earth, that no individual, tribe or nation can escape. God loves justice. As a lover of justice, God’s might as monarch is established through a fair and unbiased virtue. God is relational. God hears our cries, responds to us, forgives us, avenges our wrongdoing.
Stand at the bottom of the grandest canyon or the top of the highest peak and attempt to comprehend the hugeness of creation, and more so, the one who Created it all. The writer of this Psalm was refuting the tendency to worship domesticated versions of God. How often do we go searching for the God who fits our needs? What if we went in search of the God who meets every need and whose presence is far more expansive than just want we want or need? Worshipping at the footstool of our God, the deepest and highest presence possible, most merciful lover of justice, the truest essence and relationship we will ever know — it will cause us to tremble. Because this God is holy. Not in the moralistic sense of dos and don’ts, but because of a fully-full presence, truly-true justice and deeply-deep love.
The height and depth and width and expansiveness of this kind of whole-making presence is worship-inspiring. And this is why the psalmist prompts us to worship the God of Psalm 99 on transfiguration Sunday. A new verse could be imagined sung by the Peter, John and James on the mountain top when they experienced the transfiguration of Jesus that day, trembling as they worshipped:
“Were you there when Jesus was transformed in the light?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when Jesus was transformed in the light?”