Summary: Worship in context: words of warning
SINGING PRAISE, AND LISTENING TO THE WORD
In days gone by not everybody who gathered in our churches could read, so it was useful to learn things by rote. So when the praise-leader sang “O Come let us sing unto the LORD” (Psalm 95:1), the congregation knew to join in the singing of Psalm 95. Depending on which tradition they were in, they would know the Psalm by the words, or the tune perhaps, or by its place within the service.
Psalm 95 begins with a reciprocal invitation to praise (Psalm 95:1). Yet praise must have focus. This is not just a chance for ‘a good-old sing-song’ - you can get that down the pub. This is serious worship, with its focus upon who the LORD is (the Rock), and who He is to us (the rock of our salvation).
We should be aware - even in ‘the praise part of our service’ - that we are coming into the presence of the true and living God. We draw near with the familiarity of “thanksgiving” and of “making a joyful noise” (Psalm 95:2), ‘boldly approaching the throne of grace’ (Hebrews 4:16). But we also come with a sense of awe at the presence of the LORD, the great God, the King over all (Psalm 95:3).
Praise gives way to Word: a word of exhortation, and a word of warning. ‘Anyone who has ears should listen’ (cf. Matthew 13:9). “Today, if you will hear His voice, harden not your heart…” (Psalm 95:7-8).
We are taken back in time to an incident (Exodus 17:1-7), not long after the LORD had led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13:3). The Red Sea had miraculously parted, and the first generation of freedmen had walked across dry-shod. Miriam’s song (Exodus 15:21) was still fresh in the memories of the people.
The people put the LORD to the test in the wilderness (Psalm 95:8-9). They chided with Moses, and he accused them of tempting the LORD (Exodus 17:2). After all the miracles of Egypt, the people questioned: ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ (Exodus 17:7). How soon we forget past mercies!
It was at this point that “the Rock” (Psalm 95:1) was introduced (Exodus 17:6): ‘and that Rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:4). There came a breaking point in the relationship between the LORD and His people, and a whole generation were doomed to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Psalm 95:10), and failed to enter the promised land (Psalm 95:11). These things are written for our admonition, the Apostle Paul tells us: ‘therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).
The dating of this Psalm is open to several possibilities. Its teaching section (Psalm 95:8-11) looks back to the days of Moses, but it is part of what the Spirit is saying to the churches, even today (Revelation 2:29). Whoever wrote it, its application is to the present: it belongs to Today, whenever Today may be.
“Today” could be some 40 years after the events described, when Moses addressed the second generation of wilderness wanderers (Deuteronomy 32-33). Or “Today” could be the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, whether the first or the second. “Today” could be when a certain writer took up the same words and expounded them to some Hebrew Christians on his friends list, applying them to their New Testament situation (Hebrews 3-4).
It was “Today” when the English reformers embedded this Psalm in the liturgy: ‘to be sung daily throughout the year’ at the commencement of morning prayer. “Today” is the Today when I write this, the Today when I speak it; the Today when you read this, or hear it. “Today, if you will hear His voice, harden not your heart…” (Psalm 95:7-8).
‘Exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin’ (Hebrews 3:13).