Psalm 99 is one of a group of hymns (Psalms 95-100) known as Enthronement Psalms. There were two different uses for these psalms in Temple worship. The first use would have been on the occasion of the coronation of a new king. The Israelites also used these psalms on their annual “enthronement” festival or feast.
The various histories in the Hebrew Scriptures point out the fact that Israel was a theocracy. God was their monarch. However, the children of Israel were not satisfied with a God they could not see. So they asked Samuel to crown them a king. At first Samuel resisted this request. However, eventually he acquiesced after God validated their request. However, rather than being an absolute monarch, the king was supposed to be a representative of God, enforcing God’s Law, reigning simply as a reminder that God was the real monarch.
Human nature being what it is, the kings were tempted by power and greed and strayed from the path of their “right” relationship with God. Rather than representing God, they used their power for their own good and forsook the covenant. Each time a king died and a new king was crowned, the sentiments of the people would be expressed in the enthronement psalms, praying that this king would be a true representative of God’s Law. More often than not, their worst fears were realized as one king after another strayed from the covenant relationship that Israel had with God.
Not content to simply have a king like the neighboring peoples, the Israelites also adopted a pagan custom. Each year, the various nations that surrounded Israel would celebrate the enthronement of their god or gods. These festivals were marked by their excess. The Israelites grew jealous of their neighbors and instituted an annual feast wherein they would “re-enthrone” the Ark of the Covenant, carrying it into the Temple and placing it in the Holy of Holies. These religious feasts were also an occasion to sing the Enthronement Psalms.
So these psalms have two sentiments. First they pray for a righteous king, a king who acknowledges God and the covenant relationship that exists between God and the people. Secondly, they are ecstatic songs of praise for their God, referencing the mighty deeds of God and the men and women who had gone before them in God’s reign.
How are we to use them today? I believe that we can use them in the same way that the Israelites used them. We can ask God to send us leaders who obey God’s laws and commands. We can also use them as songs of praise, remembering all that God has done for and through us down through the ages. So often these psalms ask us to “Sing a new Song.” In reality, there are no new songs, just the same old songs. However, the situation in which we pray these psalms makes them new as we choose new leaders and face new difficulties. Just like the Israelites of old, we remember that God is our Sovereign; God’s Law is our way of life.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator