Psalm 95 | Christ the King Sunday Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1    Come, let us sing to the LORD;
                   Let us shout to the Rock,  our Rescuer.
2                 Let us come face to face with a thank offering
                   Let us extol Him with song.

3    For the LORD is the great God,
                                      the great King above all gods.

4    His hand holds the earth’s caverns,
      The mountain peaks belong to him.
5    His is the sea,  He made it,
       His hands formed dry land.

6    Come, let us bow down in worship,
                   Let us kneel before the LORD our creator;
7    For He is our God
       and we are the people of his pasture,
                             the flock he guides.

      Here and now,  if you would…. Hear his voice:

8   “Do not harden your hearts as in the day of complaint – Meribah
                                                           as in the day of trial in the wilderness – Massah
9   when your ancestors tested me;
      when they tried me, even though they saw my mighty saving acts.
10 Forty years I felt frustration with a generation;
      I said ‘They are a people whose hearts wander,
                   they don’t know my itinerary.’
11 So I made an oath in my annoyance,
    ‘They will never come to my rest’.”

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 has been a regular visitor to daily prayer formation since the rise of monastic  communities in the 3rd century. If you have been a regular visitor to Anglican morning prayer since Cranmer you have heard the first seven verses said or sung as the canticle Venite, then during Lent, the psalm is heard in its entirety. 

In ancient Israel’s psalms, moods were united in impressive artistic expression.  The conceptually rich, precision in choice of words, tone and style – the agony of one psalmist; the sheer joy of another – draw hearers/readers into the powerful twists and turns of faith and practice. 

Psalm 95 stands within that tradition. Psalms like all poetry can be hard to button hole. Psalm 95 sometimes appears with psalms focused on the reign of YHWH as a Great King. Other times the Covenant lawsuit wording of vs. 8-11 sort it into the prophetic cubby. A number of years ago I made this opening statement to a gathering of psychologists and therapists: “When I read the Bible I hear voices. lots of voices”. Probably not the best way to start a conversation with a group of therapists!  But without doubt one of the best ways to approach the psalms and this morning’s psalm especially. On this, the last Sunday of the Year – Christ the King Sunday, I thought the theology spoken by the psalmist – the presentation of YHWH as the Creator King, Who becomes the Covenant-Shepherd King of the Exodus-Wilderness followed by YHWH speaking about the rejection of his guidance and care – might prove insightful.

The first thing we notice is the psalmist’s enthusiastic rush of words: “Come, Let us sing, Let us shout, Let us come face to face, Let us extol” in vs. 1-2. Translations can’t reproduce the lyrical sound of the Hebrew verbs but we still get the strong sense of the psalmist’s cadence pushing us to gather together.  Worship in the covenantal relationship is congregational, public, crowded together in groups that haven’t been quarantining, meeting in cautiously limited ways. Worship in the covenantal relationship is vocal, loud, not behind Lexan, muffled by a mask. Worship in the covenantal relationship has YHWH alone as its source and its subject. So in the covenantal relationship, worship is personal, practiced  in the phrase “face to face” (vs. 2).

When we hear the psalmist image YHWH as a  “Rock” we picture something along the lines of massive, strong, stable. This will certainly be supported in vs. 4. But words from a poet’s stylus are like chameleons to a psalm. They keep changing meaning from line to line. The phrase “Rock, our Rescuer” is a parade ground example, the first of many indications that this is an Exodus/Covenant/Wilderness themed psalm.  But not until we hear the words “complaint”, named “Meribah” and “trial” named Massah” in the Wilderness context of vs. 8-9 does the psalmist fully unpack the imagery. There he deliberately calls up the Wilderness “Rock” that gushed thirst quenching water rescuing Israel (Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). Here the psalmist wants us to shout to the rock not strike it with a shepherd’s staff like Moses.

In vs. 3-5, the psalmist says his reasons for gathering folk together in the Temple: YHWH is an incomparable great God, great King. The Exodus narrative gives us the first scenery for the declaration. After YHWH’s defeat of Egypt’s “no gods”, Miriam leads Israel in song “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” And the shouted answer “No one!” (Exod. 15:11). And the covenant at Sinai gives us the naming of YHWH as a great king (Ex. 19.3-6). But vs. 4-5 take us a step further back to another scene. In this scene,“hands” imagine YHWH engaging in a building project like all great kings in the ANE. But in the psalmist’s picture – it’s creation being formed. Playing with the “rock” image in vs. 4 YHWH’s hands form Earth’s unsearchable, deep rock caverns and it’s inaccessible, rocky  mountain peaks. Then looking around, the Psalmist sees other materials “sea and dry land” being handled in the building project (vs. 5).  It’s all hand made. The psalmist emphasises that YHWH has, in the words of the African American spiritual, “the whole world in his hands”.

In vs 5, the Psalmist’ poetic skill is at play in the reference to “sea” and “dry land”.  These words are a theological echo from the Exodus narrative – the parting of the Reed sea and its drying land so Israel could pass over “all that night the LORD drove the SEA back with a strong east wind and turned it into DRY LAND. The SEA was divided,  and the Israelites went through the SEA on DRY LAND (Ex. 14.21-22). YHWH handily created a way of escape for the Hebrew refugees. The psalmist sees YHWH exercising creative control and He becomes Israel’s Rescuer. But the theology of creation is about to take another turn.

At first, “Come” in vs. 6 sounds like repetition of vs. 1-2- the call to gather for worship. The imagery of YHWH as creator now spins off to YHWH as Israel’s creator (vs. 6). The psalmist is directing the Temple crowd to focus on YHWH, Israel’s great Covenant King. Notice the aerobics of posture – bowing down low, bending the knees -are characteristic of approaching royal presence (vs. 6). The psalmist further uses the theological echo in vs. 5 to swing us toward realizing that while creation is “hand made”, Israel is “hand guided” – we are the people of His pasture, the flock He guides (vs. 7ab). This is poetic code to say Israel through the Exodus deliverance and the covenant making at Sinai has been created into a mission community, a holy nation (Ex. 19. 4-8, Deut. 32. 6, 15, 18; Isa. 44. 2; 51. 13; 54. 5; Ps. 100. 3; 149. 2). The deep, resonant notes of the Covenant are heard in the shepherd imagery: YHWH, the Great Shepherd King, delivered Israel from the hand of a murderous Egyptian shepherd king. Israel will never be without his guidance and care.

In the third line of vs. 7, the psalmist makes a third call, an appeal, an invitation. Pause for a moment. “here and now, if you would….Hear his voice”. This is not mere hearing like when my parents said, “LISTEN TO ME!” btw, they only ever said this to my sister, never me. This is “hearing” that leads to obeying. Here, then, is another swinging door connecting Israel’s past to the psalmist’s present. The psalmist implies like ancient Israel, this Temple crowd gathered at worship is prone to indifference, blindness to what is in front of them, going through the motions day after day, week after week, year after year without real heart/head engagement. Oh, No. Not us. May it never be. Well listen to this.

The psalmist’s voice now gives way to the LORD’s voice speaking to those gathered in his royal presence ( vs. 6-7). His declaration in vs. 8-11 is a retelling of a crisis – a reflection from his past experiences told in words of frustration, anguish and distress captured in ….they tested me….they tried me….they saw….I felt frustration….in my annoyance….they’ll never. You get the point. All this is intended to be taken in by the Temple crowd. His past experience is arced – framed in two incidents: one at Rephidim shortly after the exodus (Ex. 17. 1-7) and the other at Kadesh Barnea some 40 years later (Num. 20.1-13).  Geography had changed, time had passed, a generation had drowned in the deep waters of disobedience but the problem has remained the same. Recognizing the mosaic of Israel’s lawsuit language in “complaint” (Meribah) and “trial” (Massah) (vs. 8) and the verbs “tested” and “tried” (vs. 9) is relevant. In both incidents Israel put YHWH into a courtroom trial, prosecuting him, preparing to pass a guilty verdict …. Listen to their words in Numbers: There was no water for the community so they gathered together. They complained to Moses saying, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this evil place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.2-5). Water has run out. As thirst turns into panic and panic into fury, Israel begins picking up rocks to build a road back to Egypt paving over  Moses— and by extension, paving over YHWH, the Rock, their rescuer.

Now listen to the LORD’s response at Rephidim.. “The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there, face to face, by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah – trial and Meribah – complaint because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17.5-7).

The Lord sums up these two courtroom trials saying “even though they saw my mighty saving acts” (vs. 9). He implies, at the very least, their apathy and indifference to his rescue and sustaining provision. But the summation also highlights his response both times with displays of “Exodus power”. In the end, He will discipline them but not extinguish the covenant relationship. And now we realize “Rock our rescuer” in vs. 1 has been theologically enhanced to portray YHWH as satisfying as a “Thirst Quencher”(Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). 

For the Temple crowd YHWH is worthy of worship because he is satisfying, trustworthy,  faithful and, importantly,  present (Dt. 32.4). The main message in vs. 10-11, then,  for the temple crowd can be stated as “Don’t repeat their mistake! There are consequences”. Notice the play on travel themes in vs. 10 with “whose hearts wander” and “ my itinerary”. It’s important to note that YHWH led Israel like a shepherd to Rephidim and to Kadesh Barnea. Israel’s misguided theology of prosperity, notwithstanding, the LORD who gave water also gave the Wilderness wandering. It’s not a matter of the living conditions in “this wilderness….this evil place” (Num. 20.4-5). “Hearts wandering from my itinerary” comments on a deep disorder – a heart dehydrated in the winds of rebellion, stubbornness and  preference for its own itinerary. The Wilderness places of courtroom complaint were holy places not evil places. And the circumstances they thought pointed to LORD’s absence were the very ones revealing his presence most richly. Only in following YHWH’s itinerary can they hope to be moral. They refused to stay on the faithful Covenant path and strayed.  On the one hand, the Temple crowd knows the reference to “rest” is Israel’s failure to inherit the Land promised to Abraham (vs. 11). But, on the other, “They will never come to my rest” replays the verb “come”from the psalmist’s invitations to worship (vs. 1, 6). The last line here plays out as YHWH’s closing caution to the Temple crowd “Be aware, heirs of the LORD’s saving acts. Don’t be on the wrong side of the road. I was offended then and still can be”.

In the wilderness, Israel’s complaint “Is the LORD among us or not? is answered by YHWH  “I will stand there, face to face, by the rock”.  At stake was his presence in the details of their lives: is the LORD with us here in the desert, in this temple? Is he among us when we thirst, when we bow down, bend our knees? Is the LORD still for us to guide us, care for us? “I will stand there face to face,” YHWH promises, knowing that what Israel and the Temple crowd needed wasn’t only water, but his real presence. In the frenzied mad dash toward the gushing waterfall, over the jostling knees and elbows, did anyone look, did anyone catch a glimpse of the Great Shepherd King? He says He was standing there.

I’ll end with this – one of my cherished Annie Dillard observations supporting the eloquence of this psalm: Why do people in church seem like cheerful tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may lead us to where we can never return.” Annie’s point, like the psalmist’s and YHWH’s, is: anyone who has experienced the saving acts, care and guidance of the LORD should tread lightly.

So Beloved, heirs of the great Shepherd King’s saving acts, care and guidance, Even here and now, the trek toward the LORD’s presence at this table passes by Massah/Meribah where hearts may wander. 

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