Psalm 95: Do not harden your heart
Except on Easter Day, “upon which another anthem is appointed’, every single morning of the year, in every parish in England, all God’s people should gather together to encourage one another with the words of the Venite, exultemus Domino - ‘O come, let us sing unto the Lord’. Well, at least that was what Cranmer and the English Reformers intended, which makes this psalm – psalm 95 the most frequently and most widely recited hymn in the world.
Psalm 95 has been used in daily worship for at least 1,600 years and probably for much longer. Around 320 AD, Athanasius wrote: “Before the beginning of their prayers, the Christians invite and exhort one another in the words of the 95th Psalm.” Not surprising therefore, Peter Toon observes, at the beginning of the English Reformation, this “Invitatory Psalm” is described in the Primer (1543) of Henry VIII as “A Song stirring to the Praise of God.” And what a stirring summons it is! In the Booke of The Common Prayer (1549), Psalm 95 is very near the beginning of “’An Ordre for Mattyns dayly through the Year’. From then onwards Psalm 95 was a required part of Morning Prayer or Matins.”
Bearing in mind this psalm was written for Jewish worship about God’s relationship with Israel, why has it been given such prominence by the apostolic and then Reformed churches?
The clue came in our New Testament reading. I cannot think of another place in the New Testament where a verse of the Old Testament is so repeatedly quoted. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Psalm 95:7-8).
This verse is quoted in Hebrews 3:7, then repeated in verse 13, in verse 15 and in 4:7. Indeed the word ‘Today’ appears 6 times. Do you get the point? The writer to Hebrews forbids us from confining this psalm to the ancient history of Israel.
The Psalm looks back to the ‘Today’ of God’s intervention in Moses day which becomes an object lesson for the ‘Today’ of the Psalmists day, which in turn became a lesson for Christians of the 1st Century for whom it was ‘Today’, which now some 2000 years later becomes a lesson for you and I - ‘Today’.
Today “is this very moment”, as Derek Kidner points out. “the ‘you’ is none other than ourselves, and the promised ‘rest’ is not Canaan but [our] salvation.”
There are two great themes in Psalm 95 that remind us of the object and purposes of our meeting with God and with one another. There is a summons to praise God – verses 1-7. “Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD”. And there is also a sober warning to hear God – verses 8-11 “Today, if only you would hear his voice.” (95:7). In verses 1-7 we are summoned to sing of God’s salvation. In verses 8-11, we are warned to submit to God’s word. See the link?
Hearing God’s voice will lead to praise and thanksgiving. Both aspects – from God and to God indicate that ‘worship’ is not some mindless activity we do on Sundays if and when there is nothing better to do. It is a summons to thoughtful, heartfelt intentional, meaningful, reverent, corporate worship.
And holding these two great themes of the psalm together is a middle exhortation that makes this psalm intensely personal. It shapes our thanksgiving (95:1-5) and ensures we do indeed hear God’s voice (95:7-11). “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; 7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:5-7b)
So the psalm may be divided into three – the 25 lines form a 10 + 5 + 10 symmetry around these three exhortations.
Each part of the psalm gives reasons for these exhortations… We should come and sing for joy ‘for the Lord is the great God’ (95:3). We should come and bow in worship, ‘for he is our God’ (95:7). We should hear his voice and ‘not harden your hearts’ (95:8). Lets look at them one at a time.
1. The summons to sing God’s praise: Rejoice!
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. 2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. 3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. 4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. 5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” (Psalm 95:1-4)
Singing is not the only way to express ourselves to God. Other psalms mention stillness (Psalm 37:7; 46:10); silence (Psalm 4:4; 39:9); and tears (6:6; 42:3; 56:8). But singing is the best way to express our thanks and praise. And this is not just singing – this is M&S singing – with music and shouting. Kidner says, “The full-throated crises urged in the verbs of verses 1 and 2 suggest an acclamation fit for a king who is the savior of his people.” He also observes that like most of the verbs of this psalm, they are urged upon us as corporately “to make sure we rise to the occasion, not drifting into his courts preoccupied and apathetic.”  And this is not a forced or artificial cheerfulness. The explanatory “For…” (95:3 and 5) introduces a reason bigger than the world itself, seen and unseen.
Notice the psalmist gives us plenty of reasons for our praise and thanksgiving. The Lord is
1. “the rock of our salvation” (95:1)
2. “the Great God” (95:3)
3. “the great King above all gods” (95:3)
4. “in his hands are the depths of the earth” (95:4)
5. “the sea is his, for he made it” (95:5)
6. “the Lord our Maker” (95:6)
7. “we are the people of his pasture” (95:7)
Every dimension is covered – nothing is beyond his dominion – The depths of the earth, the heights of the mountain peaks, the breadth of the sea and dry land are all his. In the repetition of “his… “his”… “his”… we are left in no doubt – this is his varied world not only, as Kidner observes, “hand shaped (5) but also hand-held (4)” . The hands that made the universe are the hands that sustain it, and wonder of wonders, hold you and me too. For this is not only, a summons to sing God’s praise:
2. The exhortation to submit to God’s care: Revere!
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; 7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:5-7b)
As John Stott observes, “Far above us in greatness, God is yet close to us in his goodness. His majesty is tempered with mercy, and his glory with grace.” Why should we kneel before the Lord our Maker? Because he is so powerful? More than that the psalmist tells us. Something more wonderful. “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” The Sovereign Lord is also our Shepherd. Stott asks, “Has this great God condescended to be our God, becoming our shepherd and calling us His sheep? Then this is no moment for exuberant hilarity, but rather for awe and wonder, as with bated breath we prostrate ourselves before him in reverence and humility.”
It is no mere figure of speech that those who rebel against God are called ‘stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9-10; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:13; Acts 7:51). That is why we will not only want to stand to sing God’s praise, we will also want to kneel to submit before our maker.
The summons to
sing God’s praise: Rejoice!
The exhortation to submit to God’s care: Revere!
When we are, we will be ready to hear God’s voice
3. The warning to hear God’s voice: Repent!
Today, if only you would hear his voice, 8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (Psalm 95:7c-11)
Now I said that this Psalm, also called the Venite, has been used in daily worship for at least 1,600 years and probably for much longer. That is not quite accurate. In 1789, the Episcopal Church in the USA amputated verses 7b-11 from their version of the Venite. The Church of England followed suit in the 1928 Prayer Book, the 1980 Alternative Service Book and 2000 Common Worship. After verses 7a the text of Common Worship says, “the canticle may end here”. It may indeed, if you want to sing and bow but don’t want to listen to God’s voice.
We might therefore call it a ‘Venite Lite’. Sounds like something you would buy from Starbucks. As John Stott insists, “God is revealed in Scripture as a God of love and wrath, of goodness and severity. He hates sin with an implacable hatred, while yet loving the sinner with an inextinguishable love.” That is why we must not only open our lips to sing God’s praise, but open our ears to hear his word. The whole point of this psalm is the challenge to hear and heed God’s word, however humbling, however unpalatable. “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness”
‘Meribah’ and ‘Massah’ mean ‘dispute’ and ‘testing’ – two place names which epitomise the sour, sceptical, cynical complaining attitude of Israel during their wilderness wanderings.
The psalmist is referring to events that occurred in the wilderness after God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, after he provided them with food and water in the wilderness, after he kept them free from illness, and even after their clothes did not wear out. Yet God laments, “your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation.”
There is an unusual force to the verb – it is intensely personal – the word literally means “I felt disgusted – I felt a loathing”. That is how God feels about those who will not listen, will not repent, will not obey.
God patiently bore with Israel but for forty years felt an intense loathing for their behavior. So terrible their unbelief, God insists “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” Never enter my promised land. The abrupt ending to the psalm is all the more sobering. As Kidner observes, what is lost in literary grace is made up for in moral urgency.
Now do you see why this was intended to be read daily? Why those who would prefer a Venite Lite are in terrible danger?
The early Church Fathers, following the writer to Hebrews, knew the nature of the human heart. We come to worship as sinners needing forgiveness, grace and mercy, disciples who are prone to temptation and weakness. There but for the grace of God go I. Michael Wilcock warns us soberly, “God is speaking to you now, today, as really as he was then. You are as likely as your forebears were to harden your hearts and to refuse to listen. It is as entirely possible for God to be as disgusted with you as he was with them.” And if you think otherwise, you are in mortal danger. Someone once said “hardening of the viewpoints is more lethal than hardening of the arteries.” How do we ensure we have soft hearts? How do we avoid hard hearts?
Well, how does hardness enter a relationship? a marriage? A family? When we complain and are not thankful. When we refuse to listen. When we won’t say sorry.
When we are unwilling to admit our fault. When we shift the blame. When we turn away. Isn’t this how marriages die? Isn’t that how families fall apart? Isn’t this how friendships go cold? How do we avoid developing a hard heart toward God? By taking the exhortations of this Psalm seriously.
The summons to exhort one another to sing God’s praise – rejoice. The exhortation to submit to God’s care - revere.
The warning to hear God’s voice - repent.
Here’s a test to help you evaluate how soft or how hard your heart is today. Are you more comfortable with a Venite Grand or a Venite Lite? How important is the reading of God’s word to you? How regularly do you allow God to speak to you from the Scriptures? Are you allowing Him to shape your values, your convictions, your priorities? Are your beliefs based on the plain teaching of God’s word or by human reason or popular opinion? In the words of Hebrews:
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Hebrews 3:12-13)
Let us respond by using this psalm, the whole psalm, as intended – exhorting one another together:
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
 With thanks to Michael Wilcock, my old pastoral tutor at Trinity College, Bristol and author of The Message of Psalms 73-150 (InterVarsity Press, 2001)
 Derek Kidner, Psalm 73-150 Tyndale Commentary (InterVarsity Press, 1975)
 Kidner, p. 344.
 See John Stott, Favourite Psalms (Word, 1988) pp.83-86)
 Wilcock, p. 95.