Psalm 92/3, Isaiah 6, Genesis 3, Isaiah 51:9, cf. Isaiah 27:1, Ezekiel 29:3, Psalm 88/9:10
Having entered into God’s holy presence in Great Vespers, by means of the Lamplight Songs, and the ancient Hymn, O Gladsome Light, we are given a vision of the LORD, robed in majesty. It is as though we are tracing the experience of the prophet Isaiah in the Temple, when he saw the LORD high and lifted up, attended by the glorious angels, with His garment of glory stretching even to the earth, filling the human realm as well.
Psalm 92 LXX/93 (Hebrew text), gives us this glimpse of the very God who has established the world:
The LORD is King: he is robed in beautiful majesty!
The LORD is robed with strength and has girded himself,
For He has made the world so sure that it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established of old: You are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice;
The floods lift up their waves.
The LORD on high is mightier than the noise of many waters,
Yes, more than the mighty waves of the sea.
Your testimonies are very sure.
Holiness befits Your house, O LORD, unto the length of days.
It is entirely appropriate to chant this Psalm on the night before our Christian Sabbath, since the Greek LXX version has this title: “The Song of praise of David himself, on the day before the Sabbath, when the earth was founded.” Of course, on the fifth day before the Jewish Sabbath, only the heavens, the world, its vegetation, and its animals, had been created, whereas for us the day of celebration begins on the evening of the sixth day, after humankind had also seen the light of day. We, too, are God’s handiwork, and He has founded, or established us. During Saturday vespers, we chant only verses 1, 2, and 5 of the Psalm, but the rest of that song lurks, for those who know it, in our imaginations and our hearts. We’ll consider the entire Psalm as an expression of God’s glory, and His relation to the world.
First, why is the LORD robed? Does He need to be kept warm, or does He delight to decorate Himself? Clothing, for humankind, is understood as a necessity or a kind of affectation—we have had this impression of clothing ever since the Fall, when Adam and Eve saw that they were naked, and God clothed them in pity. Those in high office make sure that their clothing is dignified, and that it signals to all around that they are not “in need,” as are those under them. Even that act speaks, in a kind of backwards way, of the Fall of humankind, for it is against the backdrop of general poverty that those who are ”great” in this world clothe themselves. They are the ones who have overcome, and whose very clothing shows their power and untouchability. But we all know that “rich men have turned poor and gone hungry,” and that, in the words of our mother, the Theotokos, “He has pulled the rich down from their seat, but exalted the humble and meek.”
No, God’s clothing is neither for protection, nor to make a big splash. For, after all, He is from everlasting to everlasting. Rather, even His apparel matches who He is: He is clothed, depending upon the translation, in “majesty” or in “beauty.” Thus He communicates His hidden being to us, showing who He is in greatness and in loveliness. But we hear, in the next part of the verse, that His clothing is also a response to our fallen world. For He has “girt” or “belted himself” in front, with might and strength, for our sake. Elsewhere in Scriptures we hear of God “girding” Himself with the sword of truth: “Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighy one, in your splendor and majesty!” (Psalm 44/5:3). This mighty One will do battle against any enemy, spiritual or physical, who tries to destroy His world. But, of course, as the blessed Augustine reminds us when he comments on this psalm, those of us who know the majesty of the cross may recall another time when God girded Himself—with a towel, to humbly cleanse the feet of His disciples (Exposition on Psalm 93, NPNF 1. 8, 5). Even in the weakness of God the Son, we see the might of God, active for our sake.
Because it is God’s sure handiwork, the world can really only be shaken by Him—it is, because He cares for it, unshakeable so far as His enemies are concerned. This world in which we now live has been established in strength, has been visited and sanctified by God the Son, and will be renewed in the resurrection as a new Heaven and new Earth. God’s clothing speaks of all that, for He is dressed for action, and the glory of His robes reaches even into our world, if He so chooses. With the angelic hosts, we cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
So, the LORD is robed just by virtue of who He is, but also in reflection of what He has done, is doing, and will do in our world. He is robed in majesty as King of Kings, and He is robed for action—action which we have already seen as He called Israel, visited us in Jesus, and empowered the Church at Pentecost. We await the time when He will come again, and when this glory will be evident in every part of what He has created, for God will be entirely with us! He is robed as an expression of His majesty, and His might exercised on our behalf.
The LORD is also seated, on a throne that was established “of old.” At this point in the psalm, we turn from talking about God’s majesty, and speak to Him directly. We are amazed, and call out, with the Psalm, “Your throne, O Lord, is established of old: You are from Everlasting!” Christians know that the throne of God is inhabited not only by the Father, but shared rightly with the co-eternal Son and the all-powerful Spirit. Though, from our historical view, the enthronement of Jesus took place at the Ascension, we know that He has always, and forever, been King, along with His Father and the Spirit, One God eternally. Because this One has been among us, and abides with us through the Spirit, we can address God directly, hoping to know Him face-to-face. Much of the rest of the Psalm will actually be something that we say to the God who is King, but also who is our Helper.
The throne of God itself is understood in various ways. Through Isaiah and especially Ezekiel (chapter 1), we see the throne of God made up of the living angelic hosts who accompany God, and by whom He moves even to be with us, while remaining unmovable. But the Theotokos becomes His throne as she bears Him, and presents Him to us, and we see this in her icon in the apse of our Churches, where He is seated on her lap. As we sing about her during the Nativity, “God made your body into a throne.” This role of the Theotokos as the throne to bear the Living God is a hint to us, also, of our part in bearing Christ, who, as Psalm 22:3 (Hebrew version) puts it, is “enthroned on the praises of Israel.” For what the Theotokos was, always praising and saying yes to God, is what we aspire to be. The blessed Augustine understands God’s throne, which He planned from the beginning of all ages, in this way:
What is the throne of God? Where does God sit? In His Saints. Do you wish to be the throne of God? Prepare a place in your heart where He may sit. What is the throne of God, except where God dwells? Where does God dwell, except in His temple? What is His temple? Is it surrounded with walls? Far from it. Perhaps this world is His temple, because it is very great, and a thing worthy to contain God. It contains not Him by whom it was made. And wherein is He contained? In the quiet soul, in the righteous soul: that is it that contains Him…. He who said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) – not before Abraham only, but before Adam: not only before Adam, but before all the angels, before heaven and earth; since all things were made through Him” (Exp Psalm 93, NPNF 1.8,5).
That very one, the great Existing One, planned from eternity to be enthroned on the lap of the Theotokos, but also on our praises as well!
And what do we make of the roaring waters? These many waters lift up their voice, and yet they can in no way compete with the might of the LORD Himself, who by His word created the world. Some understand these waters to represent the enemies of God, over whom He is victorious. In that case, this verse is seen a continuation of the image of our God who girds Himself for battle, and is like other mysterious passages found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms, where the very creation is seen as a conquering of chaos by the God of light and order:
Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the LORD;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab [that is, the chaos monster] in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
(Isaiah 51:9, cf. Isaiah 27:1, Ezekiel 29:3, Psalm 88/9:10)
But others have seen these waters to represent the might and energies which God gives to His people, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as when Jesus spoke of the “streams of living water” that would flow from those who believe (John 7:38). In that case, the many voices sing out in praise of the LORD, whose almighty love has given them this power, for the Holy Spirit speaks in them. Whether the many voices of the waters are a sign of God’s enemies or God’s own children, one thing remains clear: The LORD is the unique One clothed in majesty, with beauty and strength. And because of that, we can say that everything that He has promised to us—His testimonies—are absolutely sure. He can and will do what He promises, whether that means putting down His and our enemies, or establishing our voices to sing His praise through the Holy Spirit. God is faithful, and we have evidence from that from the very beginning of creation, throughout history, and even now as He works in the Church. This may be a song that celebrates the end of God’s first creation, but we take seriously the teaching of Jesus in John’s gospel that “My Father is always working, to this day, and I am working too” (John 5:17-18).
And so we finish with the theme of holiness—God is the LORD, and no one else. There is nothing like Him. And so we address Him in love, saying, “Holiness befits Your House, O Lord.” Everything in His household, everything in His sanctuary, everything in His Temple, is to be holy—because only true separation from evil and dedication to God “befits” Him, and only true holiness can show who He truly is. “Holiness befits your house, O LORD, unto the length of days!” In the Old Testament Temple, the priest sprinkled the worshippers, and indeed everything, including the altar in the holy place, with blood (Leviticus 1-3); Jesus’ blood sprinkled on us “speaks a better word” (Hebrews 12:24), sanctifying us for God. We have entered into God’s holy presence with this Psalm, and learn, not only with our minds, but also our hearts, that He alone is the LORD, He alone is holy! May all of us cooperate with the Holy Spirit so that, more and more, our “holiness” will befit His house, whether we are worshipping physically together, or daily in our own homes.
He is robed in majesty, and has given to us a white garment to keep clean until it is needed on that great Wedding Day.