For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 99. Psalm 99 talks about the LORD reigning in righteousness, as the earth and the people in it tremble and are encouraged to praise the LORD’s name. V 4 exhorts people to worship the LORD at his footstool. Then, for some reason, vv 5-7 give a little history lesson. In the King James Version, these verses read as follows:
“Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the LORD, and he answered them. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: they kept his testimonies, and the ordinance [that] he gave them. Thou answeredst them, O LORD our God: thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.”
I had two questions about these verses. First of all, did God ever speak to Samuel in a cloudy pillar or punish Samuel for some sin, while also forgiving him? Second, how do these verses relate to the rest of the Psalm, which concerns God’s reign and the need to worship God?
1. Let’s address the first question, whether God spoke to Samuel in a cloudy pillar or punished him for some sin. Why do I ask this? Because I can think of instances in the Bible in which God speaks to Moses and Aaron from a cloud and punishes them for sin, while also forgiving them. In the days of Moses and Aaron, the cloud of God’s glory appeared at Sinai/Horeb and also over the Tabernacle. God punished Moses and Aaron by forbidding them to enter the Promised Land, yet God allowed them to live to a ripe old age.
But was this the case with Samuel? Here is where people speculate. Some argue that the cloud of God’s glory still appeared over the Tabernacle in Samuel’s day. Others contend that the cloud from which Samuel heard the voice of God was the cloud of incense that hid God’s glory from the high priest (Leviticus 16:13). According to this view, Samuel was functioning as high priest, and he used incense to protect himself from God’s glory whenever he went into the Tabernacle. (But how could Samuel be a high priest when he was not a son of Aaron, even according to I Chronicles 6, which appears to ascribe to him a Levitical ancestry? According to Keil-Delitzsch, things were disorganized in Samuel’s day, and people desperately needed a priest, and so Samuel filled that role. I can see their point, since the high priest Eli’s sons had died.) A third view is that God spoke from a cloud in I Samuel 12:18, when God sent thunder and rain, for clouds are present in thunderstorms.
Was Samuel ever punished for a sin? I read some commentaries that said that Samuel’s sin was failing to teach his children, who grew up to be evil (I Samuel 8:3), and so God punished Samuel by making him die young (Rashi), or by giving Israel Saul as her king, which later distressed Samuel (I Samuel 16:1). Augustine, however, has a different take. Augustine can identify sins that Moses and Aaron committed—-Moses killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12-15), and Aaron helped create the Golden Calf (Exodus 32)—-but he cannot identify any sin on the part of Samuel. Augustine concludes that Samuel had to have been flawed, and so God was afflicting him to make him better. Augustine then wonders how exactly God punished Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, since all three of them lived to a ripe old age. Augustine’s answer is that they were afflicted because they had to be around the sinful, carping Israelites, and the fact that these three men were righteous only made things worse, for their righteousness made the Israelites’ sins even more disturbing to them.
2. Now on to my second question—-how does this history lesson relate to the rest of the Psalm? I think that it relates because it highlights what is involved in being in God’s presence: God will listen to you and answer your prayers, and yet God will forgive you and discipline you for your sins. A fearsome God now reigns in righteousness, and we are to worship this God, yet what takes place within that relationship? God hearing and answering prayers (or, perhaps more accurately, the prayers of Israel’s leaders on Israel’s behalf), Israel obeying God’s commandments, and yet God taking sin seriously, even when it is committed by those who are in charge: God shows God’s love for people through forgiveness, and yet God punishes and disciplines, as well.