Howard Wallace's home page

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 is an extravagant call to the community to give thanks and praise to Yahweh their God. The call, in fact, comes in three parts. In vv. 1-5 and 6-7a the call to the people is in a positive tone, inviting them to sing to Yahweh, make a joyful noise and to worship and bow down respectively. In vv. 7b-11 the tone changes to one of plea and warning.

In the first two calls a reason for praise and worship follows each summons. This is typical of biblical psalms of praise. In vv. 1-5 the reason (vv. 3-5) is that Yahweh is creator. Phrases such as ‘he made (the sea)’ and ‘formed the dry land’ (v. 5) clearly point in this direction but in the language of creation in ancient Israel and its world phrases such as ‘great God’, ‘king above all gods’ and possessing ‘the depths of the earth’ and the ‘heights of the mountains’ (vv. 3-4), also speak of Yahweh as creator. There can be no greater reason to worship Yahweh than that Yahweh has created all things. Nothing can contest the claim that Yahweh is worthy of worship and nothing can stand against the relationship between Yahweh and the worshipper.

The reason given for the second call to praise is much shorter than the first but no less powerful in its claim upon the people (v. 7a). Yahweh is ‘our God’ and we are ‘the people of his pasture’, ‘the sheep of his hand’. It reminds the people to whom the call to praise is addressed that they are part of the community who are Yahweh’s people, claimed by him. Such a relationship was historically formed in the exodus. While the first reason for praise involves the mythic dimension of Yahweh as creator, the second draws on the people’s experience of Yahweh in their own lives, or the lives of their people. Yet the two are firmly linked in that the language of shepherd and sheep draws on ancient metaphors of kingship, language which in turn relates to creation myths. The monarch was frequently referred to in terms of shepherding his people.

The third part of the psalm, vv. 7b-11 strikes quite a different note, and yet in its own way still calls the people to reverence. Verse 7b reads as a continuation of the previous invitations, spoken by a leader who now expresses some despair over the people’s seeming reluctance to heed the call to praise Yahweh. In this section the actual call to praise is implicit while the reason for praise, expressed negatively, is explicit. With reference to Yahweh’s voice, the psalm changes to sound like a direct quote from Yahweh himself (vv. 8-11). Yahweh speaks directly to the people. The reference to the people’s experience in v. 7a is linked more firmly to the exodus in vv. 8-11 with reference to Meribah and Massah, the ancestors and the ‘forty years’. The episode in today’s first reading, Exod 17:1-7 is clearly alluded to. The very names mentioned speak of rebellion. This is no positive injunction to worship Yahweh, only a reminder of a time when the people did not regard Yahweh’s ways. It is also a stark reminder that even at times when Yahweh ‘loathed his people’ the possibility of a change of heart on the people’s behalf was possible.

The psalmist clearly draws on a tradition that sees the time of the exodus in fairly negative terms as far as the people’s behaviour was concerned. It sounds even bleaker than the tradition we have in Exodus and Numbers itself and is clearly a long way from the quite different, mush more positive tradition glimpsed in Hosea 2:14-15.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Parts or all of the first 7 verses of the psalm can be used for a call to worship. They could be used responsively or spoken by the worship leader.

Verses 4-5 could also be used as a refrain during the prayers of the people following each of the main petitions.

Old Testament reading: Exodus 17:1-7

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page Year A