This psalm begins with this statement: Yahweh reigns, period. Therefore, all the peoples, if they knew what was what, ought to tremble before Him. Even the physical earth ought to quake under His reign.
Why? The psalm gives a three-part answer:
He is “great” (2), “awesome” and “holy” (3). He is King (4a), and a mighty one at that. In His might He loves justice. He established, or invented even the concept of equity (4b). Equity exists because of the mind of God. But more than that, he executes justice and righteousness (4c). Where?
“In Jacob.” In His chosen people.
Therefore He is worthy to be worshiped at his “footstool,” on Mt. Zion, Jerusalem. For, adding up all these character traits, He is “holy” (5).
The second part extols his past “priests”, who called upon His name (6a). He answered them (6b) and spoke to them (7), as they kept his testimonies and statutes. One can immediately think about exceptions to that statement, for each of these men, sometimes glaring exceptions. But the exceptions prove the rule - these were men after God’s own heart, if imperfect.
Thus the third part. God did answer them (8a), and He forgave them (8b), but God was also an avenger of their wrongdoings (8c). God showed them no partiality. Though they were His chosen people, God made no exceptions to His own character for them.
What shall the nations say to this God, but exaltation and worship? For He is the LORD of all; He is King over all the nations, and He is always true to His own character. He is holy (9).
As you read this psalm, you might hear it echoed later, with greater specificity, in Romans 2:9-11:
“There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality." Romans 2:9-11
How do you feel, as you read that? The Bible calls this feeling, when we see that He impartially loves justice as much as He loves mercy, “the fear of the Lord.” He is holy - wholly consistent within Himself.
This impartial consistency was never more visible than with His great and perfect prophet, priest and king, Jesus. At His cross, God’s mercy and judgment met and kissed, in complete harmony. For there God roared with justice, crushing him under the weight of His wrath for our sins. Because God loves justice (4a), He killed Jesus. Yet at the same time He was executing justice, He was also “executing righteousness” (4b). At the cross there occurred the Great Exchange. He became sin for us, that we who trust in Him might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Our sin was counted over to him, and his perfect righteousness was counted over to us.
He attained this righteousness the hard way. Moses, Aaron and Samuel - they were only imperfect precursors of the Great High Priest who was to come. Jesus, that Great High Priest, would keep all of God’s testimonies and statutes, in the hard-scrabble moments of real life. This he did to obey for us, and for Moses and Aaron and Samuel, too. Thus God spoke to them in clouds, but to Jesus He spoke out in the open, at His baptism.
So when Jesus asked for another way, in the Second Garden - the Garden of Gethsemane - God answered (8) with silence, and a cup, the cup of wrath, which Jesus, for the joy set before him, drank down fully. All of this so that God might avenge our wrongdoings and at the same time be merciful to us (8).
Taking all this in, what is left for us - the nations - but - even more than the psalmist - to exalt the LORD our God, and worship at His holy mountain - that is, among the people of God? For the LORD our God is holy. His ways are not our ways, and this is very good news. He has done all, and thus in Him we must celebrate.