Hello, friends, this is Lent with the Psalms, Martyr’s on-the-go Lenten Bible study series. Hopefully the series has given you some food for your prayer. Today, for the third Sunday of Lent, we’re going to dive into Psalm 95. In case this is your first time joining in, we’ve been going through the upcoming Sunday’s psalm. And while the Church only gives us parts of each psalm, I’ll be walking us through the whole psalm. One other difference needs mentioning. While in Mass we hear the NAB (New American Bible) translation, in these reflections, I’ll be using both the NAB and the ESV (English Standard Version) translations. There are many different ways a text can be translated since language can often be multifaceted. Some of the dimensions of the original Hebrew (or the Greek translation embraced by early Christians) are impossible to capture with just one translation. So it can be fruitful to take a look at several. If you have another version at home, don’t be afraid to crack that open and compare.
Overview of Psalm 95
Okay, so let’s open up to Psalm 95. This poem is much like our psalm from last week, Ps 33. Both begin with a call to praise God and then continue to give reasons for doing this. But you might have noticed a slight difference in emphasis between the two. Whereas Ps 33 highlighted God as trustworthy creator and providential provider, Ps 95 highlights God as the great King. Another unique feature of our psalm this week is the shift in tone that occurs about halfway through. At verse eight, the psalmist stops his praise of the King and reflects on an embarrassing episode in Israel’s history. He then ends with a stern warning. While some of the psalms can be neatly classified as prayers of repentance, or of rejoicing, or of petition, this psalm seems to blur the lines between praise and moral exhortation.
Now that we’ve caught a bird’s eye glance of Ps 95, let’s move in for a closer look. As pointed out already, our psalm has two major movements. The first (vv. 1-7a) is a call to praise God along with reasons for praising. This is then followed by a moral exhortation (vv. 7b-11) to “not harden” our hearts as our fathers did in the desert. We’ll walk through each of these movements.
First Movement: Get Going!
The first movement is marked by two bookends. The first verse declares, with an urgency that doesn’t quite come across in the English, “Come! / Move! / Let’s go! Let us sing to the Lord!” This call is mirrored in v. 6: “Come, let us worship and bow down.” The “come” has also been translated as “enter” (see the NABRE version) which, in turn, makes this verse mirror the last verse where we hear God pronounce his negative judgment: “They shall not enter my rest.” We’ll get to this shortly. But first, let’s look at what’s between these bookends.
In between the two calls to worship are seven invitations: 1) let us sing, 2) let us make a joyful noise, 3) let us come into his presence with thanksgiving, 4) let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise, 5) let us worship 6) and bow down, 7) let us kneel. Seven denotes completion or perfection, and so the psalmist is intentional in calling us to worship God completely, with all we have. This is echoed in the tone of the first few invitations. While the English has “let us sing” and “let us make a joyful noise” (two times), the Hebrew is much more intense. It conveys something more like “make a war cry!” The idea is the same as that expressed by the number of invitations: we should praise God with all we have.
God as the Great King (and Man as Co-Rulers)
Okay, so we should praise God with everything we’ve got. Why? Because he is the great King over all of creation (vv. 3-5) and over us (vv. 6-7a). The psalmist poetically depicts God’s universal reign by, first, showing his rule over the vertical axis of creation: “In his hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also” (v. 4). Not to mention, God is the “great King above all gods” (v. 3). God also rules over the horizontal axis from the sea to the dry land (v. 5).
As an aside, a similar idea is expressed in Ps 8, but there it speaks of man sharing God’s rule. In describing man’s co-rule with God over creation, the psalmist says: “You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (8:6b-8). Notice here a similar progression outward, upward, and downward. The poem moves from domesticated animals close to man (sheep and oxen) out to the “beasts of the field,” and up to the “birds of the air.” The psalmist even pushes the area of man’s co-rule out or down to the fish of the sea, the arena of death and chaos! The dignity bestowed on man is unthinkable. So in Ps 95, when we praise God’s reign, we can also keep in mind the lofty calling of mankind to share in this reign.
God as Our Shepherd King
Coming back now to Ps 95, we come in v. 6 to our second bookend. Notice here that two different images of God are placed before our eyes. First, he’s declared to be “our Maker” (v. 6b). But in the next verse God is depicted as a shepherd (“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”). When read together with the earlier verses wherein God is depicted as King, it can appear that the psalmist is simply giving us multiple images of God, but this isn’t quite correct. The psalmist here only gives two images of God: King and Creator. Let’s unpack this.
In the Ancient Near East (Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Israel, etc.), kings were poetically referred to as shepherds who watch over their sheep and bring them to pasture. This is seen in multiple places in the Old Testament, and is taken up by Jesus in the Gospels when he describes himself as the “good shepherd” (see Jn 10:11). By referring to God as our shepherd, our psalm is stating again that he is the Great King. And God is our Great King because he is the Creator, for one thing, but also because he is our providential provider. This theme – along with the requisite moral demand it places on his people – is taken up in the second movement of our psalm.
The Second Movement: Do Not Harden Your Hearts
The second movement (vv. 7b-11) is a stern warning to not “harden your hearts” as “your fathers” did in the desert at Meribah and Massah. (Quick note: we as Christians can speak of the Israelites as our fathers because, in Christ, we have joined the family of God. You can look at 1 Corinthians 10:1 where Paul simply takes for granted that Gentile Christians have the Jewish patriarchs as their fathers. This is a pretty big deal but we don’t have time to unpack it here.) What in the world happened at Meribah and Massah? Well, we hear the story in our first reading from Exodus. As the story goes, the Israelites are thirsty in the desert and start to complain, which is completely understandable. But they go too far and call into doubt both the goodness of their liberation from Egypt as well as God’s continued presence with them: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” This is the crux of the issue. The Israelites, who just witnessed all of God’s wonders in Egypt and who ate the “bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4), reject God.
Okay, so that’s the story in a nutshell. How does it relate to our psalm? Take a look again at v. 6. I mentioned above that “come” can also be read as “enter,” in which case, this verse would mirror the final verse, “They shall not enter.” The first movement of the psalm is one of coming into God’s presence. As we enter into God’s presence, we recognize that this intimacy with God carries with it certain demands for our loyalty, much like entering into a dating or marriage relationship carries with it certain expectations. The Israelites were brought into a dating relationship – so to speak – with God and yet many were unfaithful. We are in a similar position. And this is precisely what our second reading from Romans is talking about.
In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul explains that Christ died for us and in doing so brought about peace between us and God. Additionally, we now have the Holy Spirit “poured out into our hearts.” We are now in a very similar position to those Israelites freed from Egypt: We have been freed from sin, God is dwelling in our midst – in us, even! – and yet we can be tempted to lose hope, to lose our confidence in God.
And so our psalm warns us and says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (v. 7b). This is speaking literally of today. Every day has its own causes for joy as well as temptations, struggles, and sufferings. Sometimes we can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness and his presence in our lives or as our psalm says, we can be tempted to “go astray in our heart” (v. 10). So, our psalmist is saying, if today – this very day – you are tempted to go astray, do not harden your heart and forget God’s goodness and presence in your life. This psalm is taken up in the Letter to the Hebrews and applied to the lives of Christians (see Heb 4:1-13), but we also see this theme in our Gospel.
The Water That Christ Gives
In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus is having a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and they start talking about water. Now, remember how the Israelites had gotten into trouble. They were thirsty and this thirst led them away from their confidence in God. With this in mind, we hear Jesus say, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst. The water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). Though this can be incredibly hard, our psalm calls us to turn in confidence to Jesus in our times of thirsting.
Coming back to our psalm, it ends with us on our knees (since v. 6 where it says, “Let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”) and receiving a stern warning: “Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” The rest which the psalm is referring to here is the Sabbath rest of God. Remember the days of creation in Genesis. God created everything in the first six days and then rested on the seventh. Poetically, Genesis is teaching us that all of creation is ordered toward worship, toward being in communion with God. But not all of creation is treated the same way. Man is created along with animals on the sixth day. But only man is invited to participate in God’s rest on the seventh day, the sabbath. This is one of the reasons why the sabbath was such a big deal in the Old Testament, and why Sunday is a big deal still for Christians. Keeping the sabbath day holy was not simply about not working. It was also about remembering the awesome (I mean that literally as awe-inspiring) dignity bestowed on mankind. Men and women, in keeping the sabbath holy, were already accepting God’s invitation to participate in God’s eternal Sabbath, the Sabbath to which we ultimately gain access in Christ. But the awesome gift of this invitation to the Sabbath rest comes with a stern warning.
Accepting the invitation is quite difficult because it involves us placing our confidence in Christ, drinking the water that he gives, even in our own times of temptation in the desert. We thirst and we sometimes want to turn back to our prior sins in order to satisfy that thirst, just as the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt. But to do so is to reject the water offered in Christ; it’s to reject the invitation to enter into the Sabbath rest of God.
“If Today You Hear His Voice…”
And so the psalm calls us to praise God, it leads us into his presence, it places us at least spiritually on our knees, and it calls to mind the failing of our fathers. We hear the invitation and we acknowledge the stakes involved. This lent is a time for us in the desert where we can choose each day to turn away from Egypt – our past sins – and turn to the water Christ gives. It’s a time for us to say, as we do in the refrain, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”