You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Warning in Worship

This past semester was a fantastic one for my academic career. My doctoral seminars directly related to one another, and have helped me to come to a research interest for my dissertation. Hopefully, the all elusive dissertation topic has been discovered! Part of the research was in Psalm 95.

NIV Psalm 95:
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 you hear his voice,  
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert,  
9 where your fathers tested and 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 is an interesting psalm for several reasons: we do not know who wrote it, nor when it was written, nor any specific historical event wherein it was used. The Greek Old Testament has a caption which points to David as the author, and several scholars posit that the psalm was used somehow in the Temple worship or maybe by pilgrims coming to the Temple. Most scholarship divides the psalm in half at verse 7 (i.e. 1-7a and 7b-11), however this divides a sentence in half that should most likely be kept together.

I think the psalm should be divided into three parts based on the fact that there are three imperatives (i.e. commands) in the text which are placed at the front of each of their sentences for emphasis. These are the command to "Come!" in verse 1 and verse 6, and the command "Do not harden your hearts!" in verse 8.

The first command to "Come!" in verse 1 invites worshipers to the Temple. If pilgrims were singing this on their way to the Temple, then one can imagine them singing praises to God as the Creator God who is over all other gods.

The second command to "Come!" in verse 6 is a different Hebrew word from that used in verse 1 and can be translated as "Enter!" This seems to shift attention from moving to the Temple to entering inside the Temple and bowing down in worship. Now God is worshiped not only because of his authority as creator, but also because the worshipers are God's people. It is debatable that the period in the middle of verse 7 should be there. Most likely it should go at the end of the sentence and then the sentence should read, "For He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care, if today you hear to His voice." Hearing the voice of God is a round about way of saying "obeying" God's voice. Thus, the psalmist is saying that those who are God's flock are those who obey the voice of God.

The final command really changes the tone of the psalm by including a stern warning: "Do not harden your hearts..." The warning points to the events at Meribah and Massah where God provided water to Israel after they complained to Him. Moses was to strike the rock at the first one and then speak to the rock at the second one. However, he struck both times and was disqualified from entering the Promised Land of God - from entering into "rest". However, for the psalmist and his audience they are already in the Promised Land, so the "rest" here must be something different from conquering the Land.

We can save discussion of what "rest" refers to for another post. The central point I want to bring out here is the warning that accompanies worship. As God's people come to the Temple and enter the Temple, they are warned that going through the motions is no replacement for a tender heart which trusts God. Worship of God is incomplete if the heart is stubborn towards him, i.e. if it is "hard". How easy it is to slip into behaviorism and routine all the while having an independent heart. Hopefully the applications of this psalm to our own tendencies are easy to see. The warning is a great challenge to worship with the correct heart so that we will not forfeit opportunity to enter into God's rest.

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