15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 95

Verses 1-11

Psalms 95:1-11

THIS psalm is obviously divided into two parts, but there is no reason for seeing in these two originally unconnected fragments. Rather does each part derive force from the other; and nothing is more natural than that, after the congregation has spoken its joyful summons to itself to worship, Jehovah should speak warning words as to the requisite heart preparation, without which worship is vain. The supposed fragments are fragmentary indeed, if considered apart. Surely a singer has the liberty of being abrupt and of suddenly changing his tone. Surely he may as well be credited with discerning the harmony of the change of key as some later compiler. There could be no more impressive way of teaching the conditions of acceptable worship than to set side by side a glad call to praise and a solemn warning against repeating the rebellions of the wilderness. These would be still more appropriate if this were a post-exilic hymn; for the second return from captivity would be felt to be the analogue of the first, and the dark story of former hard-heartedness would fit very close to present circumstances.

The invocation to praise in Psalms 95:1-2, gives a striking picture of the joyful tumult of the Temple worship. Shrill cries of gladness, loud shouts of praise, songs with musical accompaniments, rang simultaneously through the courts, and to Western ears would have sounded as din rather than as music, and as more exuberant than reverent. The spirit expressed is, alas! almost as strange to many moderns as the manner of its expression. That swelling joy which throbs in the summons, that consciousness that jubilation is a conspicuous element in worship, that effort to rise to a height of joyful emotion, are very foreign to much of our worship. And their absence, or presence only in minute amount, flattens much devotion, and robs the Church of one of its chief treasures. No doubt; there must often be sad strains blended with praise. But it is a part of Christian duty, and certainly of Christian wisdom, to try to catch that tone of joy in worship which rings in this psalm.

The three following verses (Psalms 95:3-5) give Jehovah’s creative and sustaining power, and His consequent ownership of this fair world, as the reasons for worship. He is King by right of creation. Surely it is forcing unnatural meanings on words to maintain that the psalmist believed in the real existence of the "gods" whom he disparagingly contrasts with Jehovah. The fact that these were worshipped sufficiently warrants the comparison. To treat it as in any degree inconsistent with Monotheism is unnecessary, and would scarcely have occurred to a reader but for the exigencies of a theory. The repeated reference to the "hand" of Jehovah is striking. In it are held the deeps: it is a plastic hand. "forming" the land, as a potter fashioning his clay: it is a shepherd’s hand. protecting and feeding his flock (Psalms 95:7). The same power created and sustains the physical universe, and guides and guards Israel. The psalmist has no time for details; he can only single out extremes, and leave us to infer that what is true of these is true of all that is enclosed between them. The depths and the heights are Jehovah’s. The word rendered "peaks" is doubtful. Etymologically it should mean "fatigue," but it is not found in that sense in any of the places where it occurs. The parallelism requires the meaning of heights to contrast with depths, and this rendering is found in the LXX, and is adopted by most moderns. The word is then taken to come from a root meaning "to be high." Some of those who adopt the translation summits attempt to get that meaning out of the root meaning fatigue, by supposing that the labour of getting to the top of the mountain is alluded to in the name. Thus Kay renders "the mountains’ toilsome heights," and so also Hengstenberg. But it is simpler to trace the word to the other root, to be high. The ownerless sea is owned by Him; He made both its watery waste and the solid earth.

But that all-creating Hand has put forth more wondrous energies than those of which heights and depths, sea and land, witness. Therefore, the summons is again addressed to Israel to bow before "Jehovah our Maker."

The creation of a people to serve Him is the work of His grace, and is a nobler effect of His power than material things. It is remarkable that the call to glad praise should be associated with thoughts of His greatness as shown in creation, while lowly reverence is enforced by remembrance of His special relation to Israel. We should have expected the converse. The revelation of God’s love, in His work of creating a people for Himself, is most fittingly adored by spirits prostrate before Him. Another instance of apparent transposition of thoughts occurs in Psalms 95:7 b, where we might have expected "people of His hand and sheep of His pasture." Hupfeld proposes to correct accordingly, and Cheyne follows him. But the correction buys prosaic accuracy at the cost of losing the forcible incorrectness which blends figure and fact. and by keeping sight of both enhances each. "The sheep of His hand" suggests not merely the creative but the sustaining and protecting power of God. It is hallowed forever by our Lord’s words, which may be an echo of it: "No man is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand."

The sudden turn from jubilant praise and recognition of Israel’s prerogative as its occasion to grave warning is made more impressive by its occurring in the middle of a verse. God’s voice breaks in upon the joyful acclamations with solemn effect. The shouts of the adoring multitude die on the poet’s trembling ear, as that deeper Voice is heard. We cannot persuade ourselves that this magnificent transition, so weighty with instruction, so fine in poetic effect, is due to the after thought of a compiler. Such a one would surely have stitched his fragments more neatly together than to make the seam run through the centre of a verse-an irregularity which would seem small to a singer in the heat of his inspiration. Psalms 95:7 c may be either a wish or the protasis to the apodosis in Psalms 95:8. "If ye would but listen to His voice!" is an exclamation, made more forcible by the omission of what would happen then. But it is not necessary to regard the clause as optative. The conditional meaning, which connects it with what follows, is probably preferable, and is not set aside by the expression "His voice" instead of "My voice"; for "similar change of persons is very common in utterances of Jehovah, especially in the Prophets" (Hupfeld). "Today" stands first with strong emphasis, to enforce the critical character of the present moment. It may be the last opportunity. At all events, it is an opportunity, and therefore to be grasped and used. A doleful history of unthankfulness lay behind; but still the Divine voice sounds, and still the fleeting moments offer space for softening of heart and docile hearkening. The madness of delay when time is hurrying on, and the long-suffering patience of God, are wonderfully proclaimed in that one word, which the Epistle to the Hebrews lays hold of, with so deep insight, as all-important.

The warning points Israel back to ancestral sins, the tempting of God in the second year of the Exodus, by the demand for water. {Exodus 17:1-7} The scene of that murmuring received both names, Massah (temptation) and Meribah (strife). It is difficult to decide the exact force of Psalms 95:9 b. "Saw My work" is most naturally taken as referring to the Divine acts of deliverance and protection seen by Israel in the desert, which aggravated the guilt of their faithlessness. But the word rendered "and" will, in that case, have to be taken as meaning "although"-a sense which cannot be established. It seems better, therefore, to take "work" in the unusual meaning of acts of judgment-His "strange work." Israel’s tempting of God was the more indicative of hardheartedness that it was persisted in, in spite of chastisements. Possibly both thoughts are to be combined, and the whole varied stream of blessings and punishments is referred to in the wide expression. Both forms of God’s work should have touched these hard hearts. It mattered not whether He blessed or punished. They were impervious to both. The awful issue of this obstinate rebellion is set forth in terrible words. The sensation of physical loathing followed by sickness is daringly ascribed to God. We cannot but remember what John heard in Patmos from the lips into which grace was poured: "I will spue thee out of My mouth."

But before He cast Israel out, He pled with them, as Psalms 95:10 b goes on to tell: "He said, ‘A people going astray in heart are they."’ He said so, by many a prophet and many a judgment, in order that they might come back to the true path. The desert wanderings were but a symbol, as they were a consequence, of their wanderings in heart. They did not know His ways; therefore they chose their own. They strayed in heart; therefore they had an ever-increasing ignorance of the right road. For the averted heart and the blind understanding produce each other.

The issue of the long-protracted departure from the path which God had marked was, as it ever is, condemnation to continue in the pathless wilderness, and exclusion from the land of rest which God had promised them, and in which He Himself had said that He would make His resting place in their midst. But what befell Israel in outward fact was symbolical of universal spiritual truth. The hearts that love devious ways can never be restful. The path which leads to calm is traced by God, and only those who tread it with softened hearts, earnestly listening to His voice, will find repose even on the road, and come at last to the land of peace. For others, they have chosen the desert, and in it they will wander wearily, "forever roaming with a hungry heart."

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is laying hold of the very kernel of the psalm, when he adduces the fact that, so many centuries after Moses, the warning was still addressed to Israel, and the possibility of entering the Rest of God, and the danger of missing it, still urged, as showing that the Rest of God remained to be won by later generations, and proclaiming the eternal truth that "we which have believed do enter into rest."

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 95". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".