Lesson Focus If we worship yet fail to listen and be obedient, our worship becomes meaningless.
Through this lesson, students should:
Answer the call to worship.
Be encouraged to see the connection between worship and obedience.
Be encouraged to listen and obey during their worship.
Catch Up on the Story Psalm 95 is what Old Testament scholars call an enthronement psalm. It is one of 8 such psalms, the others being Psalms 29, 93, 96-99 (Richter, 250). An enthronement psalm celebrates not the kings of Israel, such as David and Solomon, but the one true king of Israel, the Lord God.
It is also likely that this psalm was used routinely during one of Israel’s yearly religious festivals. As an enthronement psalm, this text calls Israel together to celebrate the goodness and glory of their divine King. For Israel and us, it is a call to worship. Psalm 95 celebrates God’s rule, not just over Israel but all of creation.
The Text Psalm 95 can be split into two major sections, verses 1-7a and 7b-11. The first section can be divided into two sections, verses 1-5 and 6-7a. The first major section serves as a call to worship, gathering the believing community in praise. The second section offers a call to obedience and a warning. We will look at each section in turn.
The Call to Worship: Psalm 95:1-7a The first section of this psalm is a call to worship. Each of its two subsections contains similar elements: a summons to worship and a reason for doing so. This is a standard doxological pattern among similar texts in the Old Testament (Brueggemann and Bellinger, Jr, 410).
Summons #1: Let us… Verses 1-2 comprise the first summons to worship. The “O come” of verse 1 is a corporate invitation for the community to begin a physical journey to a gathering place to begin in worship of their God. Following the initial invitation is a string of “let us” commands. These commands express the strong desire for the gathered community to engage in worship.
Reason #1: For the Lord is a Great God… Verse 3 pivots to the reason the community is being encouraged to gather to give praise, namely the greatness of God. Ancient Near East gods were usually local deities, whose power and influence only extended to the boundaries of the people who worshiped them. In the second half of verse 3, we find the confession affirming that Israel’s God sits enthroned as God over all other gods.
Verses 4 and 5 then elaborate on this confession. God is above all other gods because he holds the depth of the earth and the heights of the mountains in his hands. Furthermore, the seas are his, and so is the dry land. Quite literally, nothing exists that the God of Israel does not rule. For a people so vulnerable to the changing environment, the confession that their God rules all of creation was a powerful reason to enter into praise.
Summons #2: Bow down… Summons #2 echoes the first summons, only the focus of the worship has shifted slightly. In the first summons, Israel is invited to engage in enthusiastic worship; in the second summons, Israel is called to bow down and kneel before this great God.
Bowing down and kneeling are physical signs of a person’s trust and commitment to obedience. In the prone position of being bowed down, an individual is weak and defenseless. It is a sign of worship and service to the one who has made them.
Reason #2: We are Sheep… In this second summons, Israel confesses again that God is their maker. In the response, they confess that he is also their redeemer. Domesticated sheep are vulnerable and dim-witted animals who are prone to wandering off. Israel confesses that they are like sheep who would be lost and susceptible to danger without the guiding hand of the shepherd. The shepherd has and will continue to protect and save the sheep from any danger that might present itself. The memory and promise of protection are powerful motivators for praise.
The Call to Obedience: Psalm 95:7b-11 In this section, the voice changes from the one who invites Israel to engage in worship to the prophet. The prophetic voice will bring us the words of God in the first person before the psalm concludes.
First, however, the voice in verse 7b issues a challenge to listen. From the rest of the psalm, it is hard to tell if the voice carries a lamenting tone or a tone of hopeful exhortation. Perhaps the difference, which is hard to communicate in writing, is between a parent who is talking to their child or a teacher to a student who has repeatedly not listened, “Oh, I wish that you would really listen to me for once!,” or that of a hopeful counselor advising a newly married couple about how they should relate to one another, “Oh, I hope that you listen to what I have to say to you!” The difference is between exasperated admonishment and hopeful guidance. Either way, the call is to listen and act upon what God's voice says.
As we move into verse 8, the psalmist reminds us of the incident at Meribah, which can be found in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13. Israel is on the move from Mt. Sinai toward the Promised Land. They have already begun to eat the manna that God provided for them. They camp at Rephidim and discover no water to be found. The people started to complain and wonder if leaving Egypt, where at least they had water to drink, was such a good idea. They have so quickly forgotten how God has provided for them.
Moses cries out to God, partly in distress for the people and partly in fear for his life. Despite the unfaithfulness of Israel, God commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Upon doing so, water springs forth from the rock, and Israel can drink. In the version of the story found in Numbers, we hear that Moses will not be able to enter the Promised Land.
Of course, this incident is not the last time Israel will quickly forget what God has done for them. They will arrive at the edge of the Promised Land only to fail to believe that the God who conquered Pharaoh is strong enough to defeat the large people living there. As punishment, those who failed to believe were barred from entering the land, and Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
The dominant theme in this story, and others like it from Israel’s journey from Egypt, is a failure to trust in God as their provider. The call in the latter part of verse 7 is not to repeat that same mistake. God is calling them to listen and obey his voice here and now, unlike they had in the past.
Historically, when this psalm is read in church, it is not read in its entirety. It is either used as a call to worship, focusing on verses 1-7a, or the second section is read during Lent. When we do not read the psalm as a whole, we miss the incredibly important link between worship and faithful obedience.
When we read the first few verses, we understand that worship is an agreeable meeting between a very generous God and a responsive church. Our worship is in danger of becoming more about warm and fuzzy communion with God than offering praise and thanks. (Brueggemann and Bellinger, Jr., 412).
On the other hand, when we read this psalm in its entirety, we are confronted with the reality that accompanies worship. If we engage in singing praise to God, we had better be careful and aware of how we actually live. Our engagement in worship contains a moral demand. If, as the psalm says, God is worthy of our praise, if he is both our maker and our savior and shepherd, if he is worthy of adulation, then we must endeavor to live in God-like ways. We must be holy, faithful, and obedient (Howell).
We can only do that when in our worship, we stop to hear and listen for the voice of God. Worship is not the medium in which we get to feel good about ourselves or about what God has done for us. Worship is the medium through which we offer our praise and thanksgiving for what God has done and through which we receive the opportunity to obediently listen to the voice of God. Worship without obedience is meaningless. Obedience is impossible without worship.
So What? Once again, we are confronted with a psalm that urges us to enter into enthusiastic worship. If we had our choice, we would concentrate our time on the first seven verses of the psalm. It is a good thing to remind ourselves of the greatness and glory of our God. It is a good thing to sing praises to God because he creates and sustains all things. It is good to acknowledge that God is our shepherd who seeks to protect us and save us from the dangers of this world.
We must stop and listen to the second half of verse 7 and what follows it. We are admonished to listen to the voice of God. This is nothing new to us, yet we are admonished to hear a story about how we have not listened to and trusted in the past (Israel’s story is our story, their failures are our failures). It reminds us that if we are going to worship and worship we must, we must also listen and obey the voice of God.
As we journey through the Season of Lent, may we repent of the times we have worshiped and not sought to be obedient. We hope that as you engage in worship, both with our church body and at various times by yourself, you will always be open to hearing the correcting word of God and following it in obedience.
Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
When you think about worship, how do you usually envision it? Why do we worship? Psalm 95 is written with a common summons and reason pattern. We are summoned to act in a certain way and then given a reason for doing so. Verses 1-5 and 6-7a are two examples of this. What is the summons in verses 1-5, and what are the reasons for doing so? What is the summons for verses 6-7a, and what are the reasons given for acting that way?
Verse 6 mentions bowing and kneeling down. When you bow or kneel down, what does your posture communicate? Why would the psalmist suggest doing so? What do you know about sheep? Why would the psalmist liken Israel to sheep? If Israel is the sheep, then God is the shepherd. What is the role of the shepherd? There are two different voices represented in this psalm. Who is speaking in verses 1-7a, and who is speaking in 7b-11?
Look up Exodus 17:1-7 and read it. Why would this story be introduced at this point in the psalm?
The last part of this psalm seems to be calling Israel to listen and obey the voice of God.
What’s the connection between a call to worship (1-7a) and obedience (7b-11)?
Respond to this statement: “Worship without obedience becomes meaningless. Obedience is impossible without worship.”
What is God saying to you through this passage?
What are you going to do about it?
Works Cited “Commentary on Psalm 95 by James Howell.” Psalm 95 Commentary by James Howell – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL). Accessed January 31, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3171.
Sandra L. Richter, “Psalm 95,” in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2009).
Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).