Commentary on Psalm 95
How odd it is to be hearing and singing Psalm 95 in the middle of Lent!
The “preacher” who composed the book of Ecclesiastes wrote famously wrote that “for everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And just to be sure we understood, he added, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:4).
And this is Lent. The time when we literally silence the “alleluias” and suppress the calls to make a joyful noise.1
Psalm 95 is one of the so-called “enthronement psalms”—Psalms 47, 93, and 95-99. Unlike the so-called “royal psalms,” which focus on the work of the ancient Israelite kings, enthronement psalms celebrate the Lord’s cosmic reign. The feature that the enthronement psalms share is the exclamatory phrase, “The Lord is king!” (Hebrew, YHWH malak; see Pss 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1 and 47:8). Psalm 95 does not include that precise phrase, but does celebrate that “the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (95:3).
The term was coined by Sigmund Mowinckel in 1922.2 Mowinckel argued that Psalm 95 and the other enthronement psalms were composed for Israel’s major religious festival of the year: the autumn “harvest and new year festival.” Mowinckel argued that during this festival the “enthronement” of Yahweh was liturgically celebrated with the call, “Yahweh has become king” (his translation of YHWH malak), which he understood as being very similar to the Christian liturgical announcement at Easter, “Christ is risen!” “The situation envisaged in the poet’s imagination, is Yahweh’s ascent to the throne and the acclamation of Yahweh as king; the psalm is meant as the psalm of praise which is to meet Yahweh on his ‘epiphany’, his appearance as the new, victorious king. Hence the name: enthronement psalms.”3
Question: Why the brief history of interpretation?
Answer: To emphasize the celebratory, festival, Easter, epiphany nature of the psalm—and therefore the oddness of the psalm in Lent.
A little more background:
This psalm, along with Psalms 50 and 81, has also been classified by psalms scholars as of the great “festival psalms.” Meaning that these three psalms were likely composed for and used in the worship at one or more of the three main annual Israelite pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Weeks (Pentecost), and Booths (Sukkot, the fall harvest festival).
A Time for Reproof?
Following the opening call to worship and praise (verses 1-7c), the psalm switches to reproving, castigating language at verse 7d:
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
In ancient Israel, the festival worship included moments that were both celebratory or joyous and castigating or penitential. In the modern, Christian liturgical year, we have separated these two moods into different seasons.
During Advent, we prepare for Christmas with a preparatory, hopeful focus. At Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh.
During Lent, we prepare for Easter with a penitential, introspective tone. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
We have separated that which is penitential and reproving from that which is joyful and celebratory. But in ancient Israel, these theological moves were united in the festival worship. This seems odd to us. Can you imagine Christmas Eve or Easter morning worship with a penitential, reproving sermon? Neither can I. A Christian pastor may want to reflect a bit on why our culture has separated theological moves that were once united.
Be that as it may, and given the Lenten season, a sermon on Psalm 95 should focus on the latter half of the psalm.
This part of the psalm pleads with the congregation to “listen” to God’s voice. The verb translated as “listen”—shamah—carries the sense of “obey.” This is not merely a hearing, but a hearing-and-obeying-without-arguing-back quality. Like when my parents would say, “LISTEN TO ME!” (They never said this to me. I was a perfect child. They only had to say this to my sisters and brother.)
Then the psalm appeals to history, reminding the Israelites of times in their history when they tested or disobeyed the Lord. These events are brought up as negative examples—don’t be like our disobedient ancestors! That generation—the Exodus generation, no less—had witnessed the great signs of the plagues, the delivery at the Sea, and the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. And still the grumbled against the Lord and tested him! For that reason, the Exodus generation was not allowed to enter into the land. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years (a full generation) and only their children were allowed into the land.
The psalm ends with the quotation of God’s judgment against the Exodus generation.
God did not abandon the people. But God did exercise discipline of the people—disciplining them, punishing their transgressions—but not abrogating the covenant extinguishing the relationship with the people.
The message here, in the Lenten season, is that God’s law in its first use remains in effect. Even as God re-commits to the covenantal relationship, even as God remains committed to God’s people, God nevertheless calls the people to obedience. God is holy and God calls the chosen people to holiness in response to God’s grace.
For everything there is a season. Lent is the time for this message of joy and reproof.
- For the Lutherans in the audience, it is fun to point out that Luther was against the custom of silencing the alleluias: “In church we do not want to quench the spirit of the faithful with tedium. Nor is it proper to distinguish Lent, Holy Week, or Good Friday from other days, lest we seem to mock and ridicule Christ with half of a mass and the one part of the sacrament. For the Alleluia is the perpetual voice of the church, just as the memorial of His passion and victory is perpetual” (LW 53:24).
- As with all things scholarly, there is some disagreement about exactly which psalms should be classified as enthronement psalms. Some exclude Psalm 95 and others exclude Psalm 98. But Mowinckel, the scholar who coined the term, included both—as I will do here. See The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas (2 vols; New York: Abingdon, 1962), I:106.