Psalm 95 opens with this great declaration of praise to God. So why is this great song of praise part of our lectionary readings during the season of Lent – a time of reflection and repentance? We might think this Psalm does not belong in this season, but I argue that this Psalm is placed at the perfect time in our Lenten journey. Robert W. Fisher writes, “It is fitting that we read Psalm 95 in Lent. Like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, this psalm begins with a joyful noise, but then descends into the darkness of our own guilt as we face our failure to follow” (Bartlett, 2015). Within this Psalm we see this dichotomy at work – the tension between complete surrender, praise and trust in God, and the temptation to do things on our own – in our own way. It’s the tension between surrender and self-autonomy. And right here, in the middle of Lent, is the perfect time to focus on that tension. For a lot of people, this is about the time they begin to waver on their fasting commitments. The first couple of days and weeks of fasting can be “easy.” We get that sense of, “I can do this…” Right about week three we begin to wonder if we want to continue because it’s getting harder to deny ourselves the things we have given up. Enter Psalm 95!
In this Psalm there are two voices speaking – we have the Psalmist who is eloquently praising God. And we have the voice of God lamenting over the ways God’s people have once again gone astray. It’s the tension we described earlier. We have the Psalmist’s song of praise and he’s singing about who God is and who God has been to him. All while God is lamenting the ways God’s people have forgotten who God is and turned their hearts away from God.
I think we see the perfect description of humanity in this Psalm. In the beginning of the Psalm we sing – we sing for joy because God is so great; God is so good and has done so many wonderful things for us. God has been our Rock, God has been our protector, God has been our creator and sustainer, and God has been our provider. Remembering all that God has done causes our hearts to sing for joy! It causes us to worship the greatness and holiness of God. And yet, the temptations come our way and our minds get turned away from God and God’s goodness and we, like the Israelites in the wilderness begin to wonder whether or not we should go back to Egypt. We begin to question whether or not God can be trusted and before we know it, our hearts have strayed, and praise is no longer the song of our hearts.
As pastors, this Psalm gives us the opportunity to speak into the tension. We have the opportunity to point out the ways we say we believe and trust God, and yet our hearts tell a different story. As Jesus said in Matthew 15:8-9, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV). It can be easy for us to hide here – we can put on a good show for the world to see; one that shows a surrendered believer – one that looks and acts the part, and yet, we can hide the fact that our hearts have walked away and no one but God knows. We can praise God and yet our “hearts are far from him.”
With this passage, we have the opportunity to call our people to live fully surrendered lives – to preach holiness of heart and life. This passage gives us the opportunity to challenge the ways we’ve just been playing the game and not fully surrendered our lives to God. It also gives us the opportunity to call out the hidden sins in our lives. God desires us to live in wholeness with an undivided heart. This psalm calls us to this wholeness, to let go of those things that are keeping us from going all in, from fully surrendering to God. So that we can sing this song of joy forever!
A thought for your worship gathering. Psalm 95:1-6 could be shared as the opening call to worship Scripture – perhaps read responsively or corporately. Then, at the end of the service, you could utilize verses 7-11 and lead the people to the discipline of confession – giving the people the opportunity to spend some time before the Lord and leading them through Psalm 95. Leigh Campbell Taylor gives a great prayer of confession using Psalm 95 that you might want to use.
A prayer of confession: “Forgetting that you are God, and we are your people, we have hardened our hearts and refused to listen to your voice. Our hearts go astray, and we do not regard your ways, even though we have seen your works. Though you would be justified in loathing us, do not be angry, O God. Forgive us and let us enter your rest today and forevermore. Amen” (Rigby, 2019).
Bartlett, D. L. (2015). Feasting on the word. Year A, volume 2, Lent through Eastertide. Westminster John Knox Press.
Rigby, C. L. (2019). Connections: A lectionary commentary for preaching and worship (J. B. Green, T. G. Long, & L. A. Powery, Eds.). Westminster John Knox Press.