Psalm 95 has been used in the Christian Church of East and West at the commencement of the daily service ever since the early days. St Athanasius wrote: “Before the beginning of their prayers, the Christians invite and exhort one another in the words of the 95th Psalm.” St Augustine wrote: “Then we chanted the Psalm (95), exhorting one another with one voice, with one heart, saying, ‘O come let us adore…’.”
At the beginning of the English Reformation, this “Invitatory Psalm” is described in the Primer (1543) of Henry VIII as “A Song stirring to the Praise of God.” And in the new English prayer book, The Booke of The Common Prayer (1549), Psalm 95 is very near the beginning of “An Ordre for Mattyns dayly through the Year.” From then onwards Psalm 95 was a required part of Morning Prayer or Matins in all editions (1552, 1559, 1604, 1662) of The BCP, even though it came not so near to the beginning in the editions from 1552 onwards.
The Psalm neatly divides into two parts. The first (verses 1-7a) is a hymn celebrating the LORD as the creator and king of the universe; the second (verses 7b-11) contains an admonition or prophetic oracle warning the congregation not to disobey the laws of the LORD, through recalling aspects of Israel’s history. The saints have recognized that both parts are necessary.
It is these two themes together—of celebration and of warning— which make it a perfect entry into the heights and depths of Daily Prayer for the people of the new covenant as they come before the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The devout people of God come before the LORD stirring each other up to offer to their covenant King the thanks and praise due to him for who he is and what has done and still does:
“Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation… “
They are ready “to bow down” and “kneel before “ their King in adoration.
Yet –and this is most important—they come not as perfected saints, but as sinners being sanctified, disciples who are prone to temptation and weakness. So they are most suitably reminded of a part of the history of the elect people of God. That is of the hardness of heart and provoking of the Lord by the wilderness generation of Israelites, for which they were denied entry into the land of rest and promise.
“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…” (See Numbers 20:16 & Exodus 17:7.)
So the Christian congregation enters into Daily Prayer recognizing the high calling which it has embraced—to worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness—but yet it does so much aware of its weakness and imperfection due to sin remaining in the soul, and ,therefore, seeking to be aware of possible pitfalls. In fact, it becomes aware that the confession of sin by the penitent soul is in fact the worship of God, proclaiming his judgment and mercy.
In the nineteenth century, Archdeacon P. Freeman made this perceptive comment about the content of Psalm 95:
“It is not merely that in common with many other psalms, this Psalm invites to the worship of the great King, but that it goes on to exhibit so perfect a portraiture, in terms of Israelite history, of the frail and erring, though redeemed and covenanted, estate of man. It is this [quality] that fits it to be a prelude to the whole psalmody and worship of the day, whatever its character [e.g., Lent or Pentecost]; since it touches with so perfect a felicity the highest and lowest notes of the scale, that there is nothing so jubilant or so penitential as not to lie within the compass of it.”
This important insight has of course been made by many others; but, regrettably, not by the liturgical experts of the American Episcopal Church. Its Prayer Book has omitted the prophetic oracle and admonition (verses 7b-11) since its first edition in 1789; and, sadly, it has been common to refer to the omitted second half as “the four distasteful verses.”
This condescending approach, originally inspired by principles of the Enlightenment, avoids the strong, biblical doctrine of God’s wrath against sin within the Bible, and seeks to make God to be always loving and only rarely displeased! Today most congregations in the West seem to omit these verses as not being suitable for “Christian worship.” This is usually because they are taken up with the prevailing, modern idea that worship must be “celebration,” sin, wrath and judgment are not common themes! This liberal, progressive religion has been accused—with justice—of being that religion, in which a God, without wrath, saves a people within sin, for a kingdom without judgment, by the ministry without the Cross.
Psalm 95 is an invitation and introduction to Daily Prayer for those who are truly submitted to the Father almighty, through his Incarnate Son, and who desire to be instructed and led by his Word. It is not for those whose view of “celebration” removes from it the realistic message of the “deceitfulness and sinfulness of the human heart” and its consequences!
www.pbsusa.org Dr Peter Toon March 3, 2008