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Psalm 95   Encounter With God

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Come, ring out our joy to the Lord;
hail the rock who saves us.
Let us come before him, giving thanks,
with songs let us hail the Lord.

A mighty God is the Lord,
a great king above all gods.
In his hands are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his.
To him belongs the sea, for he made it
and the dry land shaped by his hands.

Come in; let us bow and bend low;
let us kneel before the God who made us
for he is our God and we
the people who belong to his pasture,
the flock that is led by his hand.

O that today you would listen to his voice!
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as on that day at Massah in the desert
when your fathers put me to the test;
when they tried me , though they saw my work.

For forty years I was wearied of these people and I said:
‘Their hearts are astray, these people do not know my ways.’
Then I took an oath in my anger:
‘Never shall they enter my rest.’ "

Commentary

From primitive times the Church has used this psalm as a call to worship. It was known as the Venite from the Latin for “O come!" it is still used as the invitatory psalm for morning prayer in the Roman Breviary. Its austere conclusion balances the exuberance of the opening verses with the same realism that the ancient prophets portrayed, when they called for great and fine deeds to follow great and fine words of praise.

The authorship is unknown, but Hebrews 4:7 ascribes it to David, probably because the whole Psalter was ascribed to him as its most celebrated author. The psalm appears to have been used for the Feast of Tabernacles, an autumn festival when the people relived, in token, their time and encampment in the wilderness. This psalm was part of a liturgy which looked upon God as lord of the universe, and who now, as the reigning monarch, was surveying His people, and reviewing the Covenant He had with them. The psalm has two parts: verses 1-7a, containing a hymn to prepare the people for their encounter with God; and verses 7b-11, comprising a warning from God that obedience to His Law and His Word was more important than anything else.

Come, ring out our joy to the Lord;
hail the rock who saves us.
Let us come before him, giving thanks,
with songs let us hail the Lord.

A mighty God is the Lord,
a great king above all gods.
In his hands are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his.
To him belongs the sea, for he made it
and the dry land shaped by his hands.

Come in; let us bow and bend low;
let us kneel before the God who made us
for he is our God and we
the people who belong to his pasture,
the flock that is led by his hand.

O that today you would listen to his voice!
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as on that day at Massah in the desert
when your fathers put me to the test;
when they tried me , though they saw my work.

For forty years I was wearied of these people and I said:
‘Their hearts are astray, these people do not know my ways.’
Then I took an oath in my anger:
‘Never shall they enter my rest.’ "
(vv. 1-11).

We are invited to come singing into the presence of God; to come with enthusiastic joy and thanksgiving as the best way to express our love to God, who is both saviour and king. We are encouraged to give an acclamation that is worthy of Him, instead of drifting into His presence apathetic and preoccupied, and therefore unaware of our obligation to offer praise and thanks, and unable to enter into deep communion with Him. The “Rock" who saves us is a reference either to the rock that gushed forth with water in the wilderness, or to the rock on which the Temple was built; perhaps to both. In either case God is the author of our salvation (see Exodus 17:1-2; Deuteronomy 32:4) (vv. 1-2).

The reason why we should come singing and rejoicing is now given to us. It is because we become aware of who God really is. As creator of the universe, the Lord has pre-eminence over all other so-called gods. He is the mighty ruler, whose hands hold both “heights" and “depths", the sea and the dry land. According to popular belief at the time, the depths of the underworld were the realm of evil powers, and the heights of the mountains the abode of the gods (see Amos 9:2; Psalms 6:5, 30:9, 88:10-11, etc.). The Lord God transcends all these “nothings". Everything that exists comes from Him and is ruled by Him, who is supreme Lord.

In the New Testament Paul took up this theme to demonstrate the supremacy of Christ over all “thrones, dominations, sovereignties and powers" which were created through and for the Son of God. Every power, whether in Heaven, on earth or in the underworld, must submit to Him (see Colossians 1:16; Philippians 2:10; Romans 8:38ff). None of these powers can separate us from God’s loving care and protection. Indeed the miracle of our incorporation into Christ means that the whole world is ours, for we belong to Christ, who belongs to God (see 1 Corinthians 3:23). This vast and varied world of ours is both hand-made by our loving God, and hand-held by Him too (vv. 3-5).

Consequently the praise and thanksgiving of every creature is His due, as is our humble submission to Him. Hence true worship entails prostrating oneself in His august presence. Without this reverential awe the opening jubilation is but empty noise and self-indulgence, in the enjoyment of ritual and communal singing. This is not the worship of strangers coming out of fear, but that of God’s own people, redeemed by His own hand, a people who come to him with confidence and love, calling Him our maker, and our God, because He is the shepherd who cares for us and pastures us like a flock of sheep, a people whom He Himself guides (vv. 6-7).

Old Testament piety had a profound concern for inner truthfulness, shown by the fact that the sentiments of praise and worship were considered legitimate only if followed by a readiness to obey God’s Word and keep His commandments. Both Old and New Testaments present us with obedience to God’s Word as the acceptable sign of love to God. To “listen" to the Lord, to “hear" His voice, and to “hearken" to His Word all express the need to respond to God’s Word with the inner submission of the heart. Procrastination is not accepted: the presence of God is here today, and the response must be given today also. The choice is put before us again to become more committed to the Lord or to back-slide down the slippery slope to join the wicked, who refuse to listen to the Lord or obey His Word.

We are now reminded of the need to learn from history so that we shall not repeat its mistakes. Massah and Meribah were two places in the wilderness where the people of Israel rebelled against God, refusing either to listen to His Word or obey it. The names mean “dispute" and “testing, or temptation", and they sum up the sour sceptical spirit of the desert pilgrims during the crisis at Rephidim (see exodus 17:1-7), and the final one at Kadesh, which cost Moses the Promised Land (see Numbers 20:1-13). The emphasis is on their refusal to take God at His Word, even though they had experienced His presence and His wonders in the Exodus, and during their trek through the wilderness. To use human language, God was disgusted with their refusal to learn from him the way of peace and salvation which would lead to their fulfilment. Because of their rebellion He left them to experience the restless strife of their erring hearts, which resulted in their wandering aimlessly for forty years without most of that generation ever seeing the Promised Land. God’s anger here is His sense of outrage that the people would be so stupid as to prevent their own happiness and fulfilment, which He alone could give them – and was willing to give them! So they did not enter “my rest", meaning that they did not experience the joy, peace and security of the Promised Land (vv. 8-11).

This warning, given during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people were in festive mood, and probably romanticizing the experience of their forefathers in the desert, is a cold douche of realism to prevent them from having a liturgy devoid of historical truth. It is another reminder that God is more interested in our character than in our comfort, and that the true aim of liturgy is to help us on the journey of salvation, not to entertain us with beauty and ritual.

This psalm is expounded for us by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in 3:7-4:11. Here we see yet again that the psalms carry a deeper message than even the original human author may have suspected, but a meaning that the divine author, the Holy Spirit, obviously intended, since it is given to us in another inspired text. Addressing himself to Christians now, the author says that this text refers to us (Hebrews 3:7) when it speaks of the obligation to obey God’s will and God’s Word. He expands the today of the psalm to the whole Christian era, for with God a thousand years is like a single day (Psalm 90:4). Each day of our lives God is present to us with His grace, present in our own hearts, present in His Word, present in the Eucharist, in prayer, and when the body of Christians meet together. Our choice is to listen for His guidance and obey, or to harden our hearts in disobedience. He reminds us that the people who rebelled against God in the wilderness were not the pagans and unbelievers in Egypt,
but God’s own people who had willingly accepted the Covenant on Sinai, and who had experienced all His loving care. It is a timely warning to us who have experienced the wonder of Redemption through Christ, and who bask in our glory as the redeemed community of the New Testament. It is possible for us, too, to lose our way and miss out on the promised rest God offers us in union with Jesus, that fullness of peace, joy and security Jesus promised to those who keep His commandments (see John 14:27, 15:11).

St Augustine understood this promised rest when he said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. If we refuse to listen to and obey God’s Word, we condemn ourselves to wander through the wilderness of this life, with our personal problems unsolved, never discovering the true meaning of life, and perhaps never finding the way of peace. This self-inflicted punishment is so unnecessary that it grieves the Holy Spirit who indwells us. We are reminded, too, of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem at the end of His ministry because she refused to listen to her saviour and learn from Him the way of peace – therefore she could not be protected from the punishment that would follow her choice (see Luke 19:42-44).