Commentary on Psalm 95
“O come, let us sing.” So Psalm 95 begins.
Where else are people invited to sing together? During the National Anthem or the Alma Mater at a ballgame? Not in the workplace, not often at home, not at the Rotary Club. Singing is our closest approximation to what our life in heaven will be like. Voices joined in praise. Harmonies are lovely, if they happen. Did the Israelites harmonize as they sang Psalm 95? Different voices, different pitches, but complementary, richer than the solo might be.
The preacher could explore the singing/choral image at length, and profitably — or even just sing a few hymns in preparation for the sermon! Martin Luther got perturbed by those not caught up in song:
Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching … I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor … This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord. But when natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracing, and hearty swinging of the partners. He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod.1
If we dare to sing praises to God, we’d best be careful about how we as praising people actually live. There is an implicit moral demand tucked inside praise: if God is God, if God is magnificent, and worthy of all adulation, then we are on the hook to live in God-like ways, to be holy, faithful, as obedient as possible. Psalm 95 underlines this aspect of praise in an unusual way. God is praised for seven verses — and then, fittingly, right after the words “we are his sheep,” we bang on knees up against a stern warning: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” Stop praising for a moment, and listen, just as sheep need to hear the shepherd’s voice.
Or realize when you weren’t listening. The sorry incident of Exodus 17, when the people ignored God’s voice through Moses and bucked in rebellion is recalled. Meribah was a place in the wilderness, and the word appropriately means “contention.” There they tested God! They put God on trial, as if they were in any position to pass judgment on God! You may have heard people joke about the fact that in every church there is your obligatory “Back to Egypt!” committee.
The wayward hearts grew stubborn, and they nearly lost everything. Their question was a fair one: “Is the Lord among us or not?” This testing God does not mind; Jesus after all was subjected to severe testing in the wilderness at the opening of the Synoptic Gospels. But is there a readiness to listen, to be patient, to be healed? If God’s people are still, and listen for God’s voice, there may be silence — which doesn’t mean God isn’t there. Archbishop Oscar Romero, during days of severe trial for the church in El Salvador, was preaching shortly before his assassination; reflecting on the ordeal of Good Friday, he said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”
Jesus cried out from the cross, and there were no words from heaven. Elijah endured thunder and earthquake on Mt. Horeb, but then God was in the sheer silence. God is a friend of silence. But God has not always been silent, so we rummage in our minds and through Scripture to the times God has spoken, and we are stupefied, humbled, and challenged by the way people failed to be attentive to God’s words. God always issues warnings. But God does not coerce. God speaks, God loves, God waits, God warns. There’s a lot of responsibility in us to answer, to stick with this God.
Worship then is a time for praise, but also a time to hear words of warning. Worship is a call to obedience, a warning flare fired in the air to illuminate the perils of the week to come. Interestingly, Hebrews 3:7-4:13 is a long, musing sermon on this same story in Exodus 17. The early Christians were evidently flagging in their zeal. Hebrews, using the same story Psalm 95 used, encouraged them to persevere. The promise offered there is the same pledge at the very end of our Psalm for this week: “Rest.” And not just rest, as in taking it easy or getting your batteries recharged. It is the Lord’s rest. Eternal rest. The kind of rest that can “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The rest that is trust, the rest that is the liberation from me doing what I want and instead being part of God’s great movement and adventure in this world and the world to come.
1 Martin Luther quotation appears in Roland Bainton, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther,” Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 352.