The ninety-fifth Psalm is one of a series of psalms which the Israelites sang together as they went up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. The series begins with the ninety-third Psalm and concludes with the one hundredth Psalm. Each of these is a demonstration and exhortation on how to worship. They are not only magnificent poetry but they are also instructions on what worship is and how it is to be done.
In the ninety-fifth Psalm there are two appeals made, two exhortations to join in worship. One is in the very first line,
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (Psalms 95:1 RSV)
The other is found in Verse 6,
O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Psalms 95:6 RSV)
As we look at these together, we shall see that these are two invitations to two separate expressions of worship. One is an invitation to sing and the other is an invitation to prayer. Thus, in the opening passage of this psalm, we are immediately made aware that congregational worship largely consists of singing and prayer.
Those of you who are regularly in attendance at any church know that this is almost invariably the pattern which united worship follows even in our day. It is proper that we should worship in this way for even in the days of Israel, under David, it was the pattern of worship.
Now, there is special reason why worship involves singing together. Notice that the exhortation in Verse 2 is to let that singing be an expression of thanksgiving and praise:
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalms 95:2 RSV)
Thanksgiving and praise are to be the major elements expressed in our singing. It is possible to give thanks and praise God individually but if any congregation took time to let everyone do that it would take all day for just the preliminaries. But singing is something we can do together. So through the ages the believers in God both of the Old and New Testament have sung their praises and thanksgivings. This is very important. It is the reason we should be careful not to sing in a desultory manner. There is nothing more conducive to dullness in a service than half-hearted singing. So the exhortation here is most appropriate.
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (Psalms 95:1 RSV)
Perhaps in this present generation it is necessary for me to point out that though the word "rock" is linked with singing it does not have the meaning that youth apply to it today. In this case the word, "rock" means a large stone. It is not a form of music. It means the Lord is the strength from which we draw; the rock upon which we rest. The motivation, therefore, for singing thanksgiving and praise is that we recognize the source of our strength.
As we read on we learn that the reason for thanksgiving and praise is because we are related to God in creation, i.e., we are creatures of God. He is our Maker and our Creator.
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it;
for his hands formed the dry land. (Psalms 95:3-5 RSV)
Do you see what the Psalmist is doing? He is giving the basic reasons why everyone should give thanksgiving and praise to God. They apply not only to those of us who are believers but to all men. Each man has a responsibility to praise God, for all are creatures of his hands. In the first chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul points out that one of the charges God brings against men is that "when they knew God they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful," (Romans 1:21 KJV). They did not care to recognize their relationship to him. It is a constant source of amazement to me that men can be so blind to the fact that they are not, as they often imagine themselves to be, independent creatures making their own way through life. It is amazing how much we take for granted. We accept as perfectly natural to us all the forces that keep us alive, and boastfully talk about being self-made men. We strut through life as if there were no one else we need recognize as the source of our strength and power.
Dr. H. A. Ironside used to tell of an experience he once had at a restaurant. He ordered his meal and just as he was about to eat a man walked up to his table and said, "Do you mind if I sit down with you?" Dr. Ironside said, "No," it was quite all right, so the man sat down. As was his custom Dr. Ironside bowed his head and said a silent word of thanksgiving to the Lord before he ate. When he lifted up his head, the man said to him, "Do you have a headache?" Ironside said, "No, I don't." The man said, "Well, is there anything wrong with your food?" Ironside said, "No, why?" "Well," the man said, "I saw you sitting there with your head down and I thought you must be sick, or there was something wrong with your food." Ironside replied, "No, I was simply returning thanks to God as I always do before I eat." The man said, "Oh, you're one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don't have to give thanks to anybody when I eat, I just start right in!" Dr. Ironside said, "Yes, you're just like my dog. That's what he does, too!"
That little story suggests quite properly that when men, who are rational creatures of God, will not give thanks to God they are acting like irrational animals. They become bestial and are already losing their humanity. Such is the basis of this appeal by the Psalmist: no matter how we may feel, or what may be our attitude toward God, we are bound, as creatures dependent upon his love and grace, at least to give thanks to him as our Creator. Psalm 96, Verse 8, says, "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name." God is worthy of thanksgiving. It is not something we do only when we feel like it; it is something God is always worthy of. We should do it for his name's sake. Doubtless it would make a great difference in our worship if we would remember that praise is not something that merely reflects our transient feelings but it is something we ought to do simply because God made us and we cannot live a moment without him. It is the glory due unto his name that should bring us together for worship.
I ran across a little poem the other day that highlights the irony of man's neglect of thanksgiving toward God. It is entitled, The Humanist which of course is a modern term for what we used to call an atheist.
He exists, because he was created
He is here, because he was placed here.
He is well and comfortable because divine power keeps him so.
He dines at God's table.
He is sheltered by the roof God gave him.
He is clothed by God's bounty.
He lives by breathing God's air
Which keeps him strong and vocal
To go about persuading people that
Whether He is or not,
Only man matters.
What an ironic thing, that a man should use God's resources to try to persuade men that God does not exist! So the Psalmist reminds us that we are related to him as the creature to the Creator.
There are two things which he calls to our attention in this relationship. One is that God is supreme over all the forces that affect our lives. "The Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods." He is certainly not suggesting that there are other gods; it is only that men think there are. Pagans erect idols and call them gods. Even those who deny the existence of God have gods which they worship and to which they give their allegiance and loyalty. No man is without a god. I have never yet met an irreligious man although I have met many who claimed to be so. All men have gods. Man is inherently and necessarily a worshipping being. If nothing else, he will worship a projection of himself. He worships mankind and that is his god. What the Psalmist is declaring is, no matter what your idea of a god may be the true God is above all such. God is above all the gods.
Even false gods derive their strength and influence from God himself. There are, as the New Testament reminds us, demonic powers behind the idols of the pagans. They are genuine spirit beings, but they exercise their power under God. He is a great King over all gods. This is important to bear in mind today when we are facing a revival of interest in astrology, horoscopes, seances, and so forth. For a Christian to give himself to these is to deny the Fatherhood of God and the fatherly care of God over him. If you think your life is run by the stars and you give allegiance and loyalty to what the stars decree, then you have ruled out the fatherly care of God. The two cannot be held together. That is why the Bible faithfully warns against getting involved in practices like these. Even the devil is ultimately under God. The devil and God do not constitute a bad god and a good God, opposed to each other; the devil is also under God and derives his power and his authority from God. We must always remember that. Worship, then, is to recognize the authority of God over everything else, the over-arching supremacy of God over all the forces that bear upon our lives.
Then the Psalmist reminds us that in God's hands are all the things that challenge men, that make life exciting.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it;
for his hands formed the dry land. (Psalms 95:4-5 RSV)
Here we have the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the breadth of the sea, and the dry land; all the things that challenge men, that hold forth promise of adventure, excitement, fascination, and mystery. We are still trying to plumb the depths of the earth, and only a few years ago did man finally scale the heights of the mountains in the climbing of Mt. Everest. We are still exploring the mysteries of the sea. We are trying to solve the problems of the dry land and to discover its resources. The Psalmist is simply reminding us that all these things that hold forth to us challenge, mystery, excitement, and adventure are from God. He has planned them, he has put them there. Let us thank God, not only because he is in charge of all the forces that sustain our lives but let us praise him because he is also behind the mystery, the adventure, the excitement, of life, the things that give it flavor and enticement, and make it worth living. All men are exhorted to worship and praise God for these things.
But not only are we to sing together about these, but we are to pray together.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. (Psalms 95:6-7a RSV)
What does that last sentence mean? Notice that the relationship has changed. It is now no longer God our Creator who is in view but it is rather God our Redeemer, our Savior. We are the sheep of his hand and the people of his pasture. He is our Shepherd-God. We have entered into a personal relationship with him and the proper expression of it is one of awe and humility, "let us worship and bow down." Think of what the word of God reveals to us of the amazing love of God and how that love has pursued us and won us. Despite the obstacles we have raised against him and the resistance we have shown to him, nevertheless his love has kept after us, has broken down our reserves, and won us. There is not one of us who has not fought against God, who has not tried to resist his love's attempt to win us and to change us. Therefore we have nothing to praise in ourselves. We have not added anything to our salvation. We are all like stubborn, stupid sheep who go according to their own ways. As Isaiah accurately puts it, "All we like sheep have gone astray." Ask any shepherd if that is not the way of sheep. They love to go astray. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way," (Isaiah 53:6 KJV). But God has pursued us, found us, and brought us back. Thus, out of a sense of our relationship to him as Redeemer, as Savior, we kneel before the Lord our God and thank him for the amazing love he has bestowed upon us:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
It is this that is to be expressed in worship: praise and thanksgiving to God for the personal knowledge we have of him. He is our God, he is our Maker. We have also come out of a distant relationship into a personal relationship with our God. That ought to awaken the love of our heart. We have experienced his Shepherd's care over us as the sheep of his hand, the people of his pasture. That constitutes worship: singing and praying, not artificially, not perfunctorily, but genuinely expressing praise unto God.
In the latter part of the psalm, beginning with the closing sentence of Verse 7, there is a change of voice. The first part has been man exhorting other men to worship God. The Psalmist has cried out, "Let us sing together, let us worship and bow down together." But now the voice of God himself sounds, preceded by this admonition,
O that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalms 95:7b RSV)
It is now God who speaks to us and to tell us what it is that he essentially wants in worship, what makes worship true worship. It is that today we would listen to his voice! That is what he wants. He wants us to heed his voice not just come together.
It is commendable for people to come to service, but the value of it soon vanishes if all we do is sit while our thoughts are elsewhere. The central fact of worship is to listen to the word of God, the voice of God.
That is why the exposition of Scripture must be the central thing in public worship. Those churches which have departed from this, and which come together to go through certain formal, liturgical, rites, or where a man gets up to give his opinion on certain current events of the day are making a travesty of worship, a parody of it. There is no true worship there at all. Worship must include listening to the voice of God, hearing what he has to say, and letting his word correct our attitudes and our reactions. I wish it were possible for each of you to be up here on the platform with me and to watch people during the hour of worship. Externally it looks as though you are all paying attention. You sit there quietly, with rapt, turned-up faces, your eyes open and staring straight ahead, apparently attracted by what the Word of God is saying. But having sat there myself I know it is not always true. Some of you are playing golf. Others of you are rehearsing a business deal. Some of you are planning a trip. Some are going over a conversation you had two days ago. Some are doing other things. It would be fascinating at the end of a service to know where everybody had been! But God is desirous that whatever else you may do in a service, when his word is speaking, listen! And not only listen, hearken! Hearken means to heed the word, to do something about it, to let it really change you. God is infinitely concerned that our coming to worship should do something to us. "O that today you would hearken to his voice!"
Then he puts the same thing negatively,
Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. (Psalms 95:8-9 RSV)
The exhortation of God to his people is: When you are worshipping together, listen to my voice, and while listening do not harden your hearts. Hardening the heart is the exact opposite of hearkening to his voice. If you hearken to his voice you are not hardening your heart. If you harden your hearts you are not hearkening to his voice. The two are mutually exclusive. He gives us an example of what he means by hardening the heart. God himself refers us to the incident we read of in the seventeenth chapter of Exodus. It occurred shortly after the Israelites had come through the Red Sea and had journeyed only a week or two into the wilderness beyond. They came to a place where there was no water, and they all became thirsty. They had hardly had time to become very thirsty when the leaders of the people came to Moses and began to complain. "What are you doing? Leading us out into this wilderness to perish? Where is this God that is supposed to be taking care of us? Why hasn't he provided water for us?" They demanded that God prove himself again. This is the point God makes. They put him to the test. They said, "Where is this God? If there really is a God who loves us and takes care of us, why doesn't he supply our need?" So Moses came to God and said, "Lord, what shall I do? Here are these people murmuring and complaining till they're about to stone me! What shall I do?"
It was on this occasion that God said, "Lead them out to the rock and in their presence strike the rock with the rod with which you struck the Nile, and out of the rock will come water," (Exodus 17:6). Moses did that, and there came out a gushing stream; not just a trickle but a gushing stream, plenty to satisfy all the people (six hundred thousand men, besides women and children, and all their cattle and sheep). The thing that vexed God about this situation was not that they asked for help in their time of need. God never scolds his people for that. But he says, "They put me to the proof, though they had seen my work," (Exodus 17:7). This event occurred only a few days after they had crossed the Red Sea. They had seen the marvelous provision of God during the days of Moses' contest with Pharaoh, when the plagues of Egypt had fallen, and God had resistlessly driven Pharaoh into a corner until eventually, after the slaying of the firstborn throughout the land of Egypt, he had forced Pharaoh to let his people go. Then as the Israelites came to the edge of the Red Sea he had parted the waters before them and they came through on dry ground but the waters came together behind them and covered the Egyptians following. There Israel sang a great song of triumph. All this had occurred only a few days before. Yet in the face of such a magnificent demonstration of the power of God they immediately fell to murmuring and complaining because they were a little thirsty.
That, says God, is what it means to harden your heart. It indicates that you have not learned anything from God. God is concerned that none of us should worship him endlessly but never be changed. He desires that worship should stabilize us, steady us, establish us so that as we see God at work the harder it is to fall back into unbelief. The Lord Jesus was constantly dealing with his disciples about this. Remember how often he said to them, "O ye of little faith." He never said that except that they had seen a tremendous demonstration of his power. Remember when he multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed five thousand men and their families. Immediately afterward the disciples were on the sea and a storm came up. In a panic they came to him and said, "Lord, wake up! We're going to perish!" (Matthew 8:25). And the Lord arose and rebuked the storm. Then he turned to them and said, "O ye of little faith, i.e., Why don't you learn something? Why don't you grow in your faith? Why don't you advance?" (Matthew 8:26).
This is the problem God has with us. It disturbs God that people can come week after week after week and hear stirring and glowing reports of what he is doing in many lives and see the evident change that has come to many and the release and freedom he is bringing about in many hearts, and still, the minute anything goes wrong with them they are ready to fall apart.
In Verse 10 God gives his reaction to this. He says,
For forty years I loathed that generation. (Psalms 95:10 RSV)
What a revelation of the patience of God! He does not immediately condemn them because of their unbelief. He works patiently with them for forty years. For forty years he cries "O that today you would hearken to his voice!" He makes possible their existence by taking care of them throughout the entire forty-year period. But all the time, he says, they consistently vexed him.
That is the meaning of the word "loathe." They grieved his heart. "Loathe" is perhaps too strong. It does not mean that God felt revulsion or disgust. What it means is that he felt grieved and vexed. He was grieved by this people that they never seemed to catch on. He analyzed their problem in two ways.
For forty years I was grieved with that generation
and said, "They are a people who err in heart,
and they do not regard my ways. (Psalms 95:10 RSV, with modification)
First, their hearts were set on the wrong things. They were not looking for the really important things. Read the account and you can see what he meant. This was a generation that kept harking back to Egypt. They wanted to return to Egypt and kept longing for the melons, the leeks, garlic, and onions of Egypt. Why would they want onions, leeks, and garlic? I don't know. All three are foods which, when you eat them in private everyone in public knows it. But they hankered after such things. They thought only of their bellies, and God says therefore they were wrong in their hearts.
In Colossians God says to us, through the apostle, "Set your affection on things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not on things of earth," (Colossians 3:1-2 KJV). That does not mean to go around thinking of heaven all the time. The "things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God" concern the important matters of life, the things of truth, honor, and justice; the demonstration of patience, tolerance, and grace toward one another in our personal relationships. Those are the things that Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, is ready to minister to us in these days.
Let me show you that from the letter to the Colossians itself. In the first chapter the apostle prays for his people,
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, (Colossians 1:11a RSV)
Does that not sound thrilling? Is that not what we all want? Would you like to have Paul pray for you that way -- that you "may be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might?" For what? Well,
for endurance and patience with joy, (Colossians 1:11b RSV)
That is what you need power for. You do not need power to go about moving mountains, and other spectacular demonstrations; you need power to be patient, to have joy in the midst of your trial, to endure to the end. That is what you need power for. That power comes from the right hand of God through Jesus Christ, who ministers it to us now. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. That is God's quarrel with the Israelites; they were looking at the wrong things, desiring foolish trifles instead of enduring realities. Somebody has described "keeping up with the Joneses" as "using money you don't have, to buy things you don't need, to impress people you don't like." How futile that is! That is having your heart set on the wrong things.
Then God puts his finger on their second problem: "they do not regard my ways," i.e., they do not understand how God works. It is important to understand how God works, for God's ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are higher than our ways as the heavens are higher than the earth. That means that God does not always behave the way we expect him to. That is one of the aggravating things about God. He never seems to do what we want him to do. We have a goal in mind and in prayer we outline the process to God of how he can bring it about. But he is so stubborn. He will not do it our way at all. So we get upset with him.
That is what God is saying about these people. The reason they hardened their hearts was because they would not consider that he had his ways of doing things. So, he said,
Therefore I swore in my anger
that they should not enter my rest. (Psalms 95:11 RSV)
The supreme thing in worship is to learn how to rest in God. Rest means to depend upon God's activity and not mine. Hebrews defines it, "he that has entered into rest has ceased from his own works," (Hebrews 4:10). That is what rest is. It is really mental health, peace of heart, peace of mind, a sense of living out of adequacy. That is what God wants for you and me. He wants us to be adequate, to be able to cope with whatever may come. That adequacy is his provision for us. It will come to us as we hearken to his word. There are many things that we need to learn about this, and his word will guide us along the way. But if we do not hearken to his words we can worship for forty years and at the end of it we shall have so hardened our hearts that God may finally say, "You shall not enter into my rest," (also Hebrews 3:11).
There is no other way. There is no alternative path. There is no drug you can take that will give you rest. There is no pursuit you can follow, no book you can read, no practice you can undertake, that will bring you to peace of heart. There is simply no alternative; you cannot come into rest if you will not hearken to his word. That is why it is so important that when we worship together we listen to the word of God and let it correct us. Let us sit under the judgment of the word. Let it search us and find us out and change us, and thus we shall glorify the God who made us and give unto him the glory due his name.
Our Father, perhaps there is even now some evident duty we should be performing; some proper appeal made to us that we are rejecting; some hurtful relationship we are defending; something that we need to do that you are now correcting. Perhaps there is something we need to do positively, something we need to do to draw near to you. Lord, we pray that you will help us to hearken, to not be like the fathers of old who resisted you, vexed you, and grieved you for forty years. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.