Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 19, 2017
Psalm 95 Commentary
The readings from the Psalms for this season of Lent are carefully and well chosen. We began our Lenten journey with Psalm 32, which sets the penitential tone of Lent while still calling us to rejoice in forgiveness. Psalm 121 gives Lenten pilgrims the deep assurance that Yahweh is watching over us as we make the difficult journey into God’s presence. And now to that call to rejoice and that assurance of belonging to God, Psalm 95 adds a sober warning. Indeed, the second half of Psalm 95 is so stern that it seems to call into question all the joyful certainty of Psalms 32 and 121, and even of the first half of Psalm 95.
In fact, the jarring shift in mood between the first and second halves of Psalm 95 led some earlier critical scholars to speculate that Psalm 95 must have originally been two separate Psalms artificially glued together somewhere in history. It’s easy to see why someone might come to that conclusion. Verses 1-7a are a joyful call to worship and bow down before our Creator and Covenant Partner, while verses 7b-11 are a somber warning not to harden our hearts lest we lose the rest God has promised his people.
But taking a critical scalpel to this beloved Psalm will keep us from hearing its powerful message. It reminds us that the most joyful worship is of no value if we don’t listen to God’s voice. Psalm 95 moves us beyond verbal praise and physical submission to the heart of discipleship, namely, listening to God with open hearts and then trusting and obeying God. If we harden our hearts when we hear God’s voice and refuse to trust and obey what God says, our singing and our kneeling are empty. If we continue to worship that way, God will be angry, and we may well miss the rest God has promised to his people.
That seems to be the message of Psalm 95, but that message raises some knotty questions about God’s anger with his beloved covenant people and about the possibility of God’s elect people losing the blessings he has promised them. How can we square the warning of Psalm 95 with the Bible’s Good News about God’s eternal love and our unconditional election? Let’s approach those issues not with some high flown theology, but with some hands-on wrestling with this text.
Careful readers will notice that the first half of the Psalm calls for two distinct but related actions in worship, both highlighted with the word, “come.” “Come, let us sing for joy” and “come, let us bow down in worship.” Worship isn’t complete without those two actions. It’s not enough to sing joyfully, if you aren’t submissive to God. It’s not enough to be submissive, if your heart doesn’t sing. We journey to God with both an open mouth and a bent knee.
God deserves both song and submission, because, says the Psalm, he is both good and great. God is “the Rock of our salvation” and “the great King above all gods.” He is the mighty creator of all that is, from the “depths of the earth to the mountain peaks, the sea and the dry land.” And he is “our Maker, our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” Psalm 95 roots our worship in creation and covenant, in election and redemption.
That theme of redemption is highlighted in the second command of verse 1. “Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Though verses 8 and 9 refer to those episodes in which God gave his thirsty people water from a rock as they wandered in the wilderness, verse 1 is rooted in Deuteronomy 32 where Moses reminds Israel that throughout their history Yahweh himself is The Rock. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (Exodus 32:4) No wonder Psalm 95 is so exuberant in its call to sing and so earnest in its command to bow down.
And no wonder Psalm 95 is so stern in its warning not to reject such a God. Later in his farewell speech in Deuteronomy 32, Moses reminds Israel that, in spite of all the ways God has been their Rock, they have rejected him. “Jeshurun [Israel] abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior.” (Exodus 32:15, cf. 18) Psalm 95: 8 and 9 refer to a specific example of that rejection, an example that is particularly relevant to Israel and to us. Actually, it is two examples, both involving a rock, one in the Desert of Sin at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wandering (Exodus 17), the other 40 years later in the Desert of Zin at the end of that wandering (Numbers 20).
In both stories, Israel is thirsty, so thirsty that they complain to Moses, accusing him of leading them into the wilderness to die. It would have been better to have stayed in bondage back in Egypt, where at least there was water. In speaking that way against Moses, they were in reality speaking against God, quarreling with Yahweh, testing his word, rejecting all that he had done for them. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they cried.
In spite of the fact that Yahweh had delivered them from Egypt by his mighty arm and his outstretched hand, and then provided guidance and sustenance and protection for them during those 40 years in the desert, they did not trust him now, in this moment, “today.” Your “fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (Psalm 95:9) It was a colossal case of “what have you done for me lately.” He was the Rock of their salvation and now they rejected him, not once, not twice, but continually. (“They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.”) Because they had rejected Yahweh not just once or twice or even 10 times (cf. Numbers 14:22), but continually, habitually, terminally, their hearts were hardened against the word of the Lord.
As a result of such long term, deeply ingrained, profoundly ungrateful, distrustful disobedience God was justifiably angry with “that generation.” From the beginning to the end of their pilgrimage through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, they did not trust and obey “the Rock of their salvation.” And in the end, they did not receive their promised rest. Not one of that original generation of Israelites entered the Promised Land. They all died in the wilderness. Their children and grandchildren entered that rest; God’s covenant remained firm, because he is faithful. But because of their terminal hardening of the heart, that first generation did not receive the rest toward which they had journeyed all those years.
That is an historical fact. We may not like it, but it happened. The Bible tells us so. But what are to make of it? Are these words only for Israel and only about entering Canaan? Or can they be applied to Christians and eternal salvation? Is it possible to be one of God’s chosen children, but to miss out on the blessings we’ve been promised in Christ, because we have been faithless? Some of you who read this will have no theological problem with that idea, but those of us with Reformed convictions will struggle to square Psalm 95 with the doctrines of unconditional election and the perseverance of the saints. How do we preach this?
Well, obviously, we should preach it as Psalm 95 does, as a cautionary tale. That’s how I Corinthians 10 tells us to read all of the Old Testament stories. “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” That’s exactly how Psalm 95 uses the stories of Meribah and Massah. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts….” As you journey toward God through Jesus Christ, don’t lose your trust because of hard circumstances and become disobedient because obedience looks too hard. Look what happened to Israel all those years ago. Don’t let that happen to you.
But is that an empty threat? Is this a word for Israel, but not the church, a word about the Promised Land, but not about heaven? Given the strong words elsewhere in the Bible about God’s unbreakable love, the unconditional election that flows from it, and the preservation of the saints that is anchored in that election, it is tempting to downplay this threat.
But we must pay attention to Hebrews 3 and 4, where the writer picks up on these stories from Israel’s history and the use of those stories in Psalm 95. “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” (Heb. 4:1, 2) “Let us make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fail by following their example of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11)
At the very least, we should read those words in Hebrews as a strong call to persevere in the faith and to continue in obedience, not as a challenge to the doctrines of grace embraced by those of Reformed persuasion. The author of Hebrews wrote to people in danger of falling away from their Christian faith because they were attracted to their ancestral Jewish faith. He is alarmed, so he speaks strongly about the consequences of such defection. His is a pastoral sermon of warning to defectors, not a theoretical attack on doctrine.
But speaking of doctrine, my ultimate answer to the challenge presented by the “Today” of Psalm 95 is the assurance offered by Paul in Romans 5:6-8. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while were still sinners (even God’s enemies, according to verse 10), Christ died for us.” So, let us warn our hearers not to harden their hearts against God’s voice. But let us trust that the God whose grace pierced Paul’s hard heart can still rescue the most hardened sinners and bring them into the eternal rest promised to all God’s children.
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Every parent has felt the sting of a child’s rejection. It hurts when they go their own way, disobeying our explicit rules for life, confident that their way is best, not trusting the parent’s wisdom and knowledge and love. But we parents get over our hurt, unless it goes on and on. Then the momentary anger that follows single acts of rebellion and disobedience becomes a broken heart and loving anger. That is how we should understand the anger of God against Israel in Psalm 95. It was not the rage of an enemy, but the deep disappointment of a broken heart. God’s heart is broken by the hardness of our hearts and he is understandably angry about the way we ruin our lives by rebellion and disobedience.
Or try working with the idea of ignoring the voice of Siri on your car navigation system.
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