Psalm 95 appears in a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (Psalms 93, 95-99).
These psalms are sometimes categorized as "enthronement psalms" because of their focus on God's eternal kingship. One popular theory about their origins is that they were recited in the Jerusalem temple during a New Year festival that revolved around the celebration of God's enthronement. If the theory is right, Psalm 95 was part of a grand celebration of God's universal sovereignty with the implicit claim that God was superior to all other deities. This theory, however compelling it may be, is not as certain as the role of Psalm 95 in the book of Psalms.
This psalm and the larger group of enthronement psalms appear in a section of the book of Psalms (Book IV, Psalms 90-106) that seems to be organized to deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. The theological crisis is expressed in many of the psalms that precede this section (Book III, Psalms 73-89). Such psalms painfully related doubts about Israel's core beliefs (the central role of Jerusalem and the Davidic king in God's plan, for example). But Psalm 95 along with the other enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control, that God was still "a great King above all gods" (verse 3).
Psalm 95 contains two calls to praise and worship God that provide structure to the work (verses 1, 6). Verses 1 and 6 both begin with imperatives that connote movement, perhaps movement of the human spirit to a posture of praise. These imperatives are followed by verbs that invite praise and singing. Verse 1 begins specifically with the imperative "Come!" Then a string of jussives (third-person verbs with invitational character) in the rest of verse 1 and in verse 2 invite praise and worship: "let us sing;" "let us make a joyful noise;" "let us come into his presence;" "let us make a joyful noise."
Verse 2 suggests worship is to be offered specifically with thanksgiving and songs of praise. "Thanksgiving" may refer to a type of song (like Psalm 30, for example). If this is what the word means here, the psalmist is calling for music that represents two major genres. The word thanksgiving, however, may also refer more narrowly to a certain type of offering (Leviticus 7:11-18). If this is the intention of verse 2, the psalmist invites both sacrifice and song to be offered to God. Whatever the meaning of "thanksgiving," verse 2 clearly calls for worship that is comprehensive and inclusive of all expressions of reverence.
Verses 3-5 give reasons for the praise called for in verses 1-2. The most basic reason for praising God is that God is "a great King above all gods" (verse 3). As noted already, this theme is central to Psalm 95 as well as to the other enthronement psalms in Book IV of the Psalter. The statement here assumes a polytheistic background. Among all the gods, the Lord has no rival. Verses 4-5 give the primary evidence that God is "a great King above all gods." Namely, God is the creator, the one who ordered and sustains the world. The elements under God's control are listed so as to make a comprehensive statement: the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the sea, and the dry land all are in God's hands. In fact, verse 4 begins and verse 5 ends with reference to "his hands" to make this statement emphatic.
The second major portion of the psalm begins also with an imperative "O come" (though with a different word than in verse 1). The invitation that follows, however, concerns not the elements of worship but the right posture for praise: "let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!" Just as verse 3 gives reasons to sing praise, verse 7 states why one should bow and kneel: "we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand" (verse 7a-b). The idea that God is a shepherd complements the earlier declaration that God is king. Ancient Near Eastern people often described their monarchs as their shepherds. Pharaoh was sometimes depicted with a shepherd staff in his hand.
Verse 7c really concludes verse 7 with an exclamation that expresses the proper response to God the shepherd: "O that today you would listen to his voice." But this conclusion to verse 7 also leads directly into verses 8-11 which recall Israel's disobedience during the period of wilderness wandering (see references to Meribah and Massah in Exodus 17:1-7). These verses present a broad sketch of Israel's faithlessness during this time. The Israelites were mainly guilty of not responding in faith to God's miraculous deliverance. "My work" in verse 9 probably refers to the exodus. The Israelites, the verse says, continued to ask for proof of God's might even after God rescued them from Egypt. As McCann says, the main message of verses 8-11 is "Do not repeat that mistake."1
The central theological message of Psalm 95 is that "the Lord is a great King" (verse 3). To recognize God's kingship is to recognize that God created us and sustains us. For that reason God is worthy of our praise. The psalm also suggests that our praise is more than words lifted heavenward. It is an expression of faith and it should be lived out in faithfulness and trust. This is precisely what the Israelites in the wilderness did not do. To learn from their mistakes and to connect praise and obedience is our calling.
1 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. "The Book of Psalms," in The New Interpreter's Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et. al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 1062.