Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.” Psalm 95.6-11.
From the earliest times, this psalm has been used in the church as a call to worship. It is known as the Venite because that is how the opening words of each of its two sections, “Oh come …,” translate into Latin. It was probably composed for the Feast of Tabernacles when the Jews celebrated and symbolically re-enacted the wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan; but if so, this second half of the psalm (following a great hymn of praise) is so pitched as to remove any rose-tinted spectacles that the worshippers might have put on to look back at those wilderness years. It reminds them that the wilderness journey was largely marked by such unbelief, rebellion, disobedience and waywardness that God ended up “disgusted with” (that is a better translation of quth than “loathed”) their predecessors.
At Rephidim, early in the journey, the people had turned on Moses because they had no water … “And Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'” (Exodus 17.7), but here in Psalm 95, the two names are reversed and all the stress falls on Meribah (“testing”). The big sin of the wilderness wanderers was, in the psalmist’s understanding of things, the sin of refusing to take God at his word. And that was the sin that effectively closed the door to Canaan for that first generation of wilderness folk. God’s “rest” for the Hebrew slaves who were leaving Egypt was to be their settlement in Canaan — “But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety …” (Deuteronomy 12.10) — but it has a deeper meaning too.
Hebrews 4.1-13 shows that it refers too to God’s Sabbath rest — the enjoyment of the “inheritance” I have in Christ … all he achieved on the cross that culminated in that great cry of exultation, “It is finished!” (John 19.30) … his finished work not only of creation but of redemption. And the emphatic “today” of Hebrews 4.7 reminds me that there is an urgency to my entering in to all of that. There must be no reluctance, no unwillingness to trust, no apathy, no holding back. In my childhood, we lived near a garage with a big sign over it that read “Free Petrol Tomorrow” … but, of course, “tomorrow” never came. And if I put off until tomorrow my receiving of all the good things that God has prepared for me in Christ it will never come either. Today is the day I need both to hear God’s voice and to respond to it by embracing all that he offers me now and doing all that he asks of me now.