December 13, 2011


 Psalm 95 – I Was Disgusted

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

1. Go forth, let us joyously sing to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the rock of our deliverance;
2. let us greet His presence with thanksgiving; with songs let us shout aloud to Him!
3. For the LORD is the great Deity, a great king over all gods,
4. in Whose hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountains’ peaks are His.
5. His is the sea and He made it; and the land, His hands created.
6. Come, let us prostrate ourselves and let us kneel, let us bend the knee before the presence of the LORD our creator,
7. for He is our God, and we are the people He tends, the flock in His hand, this day, if you would but heed His voice:
8. “Harden not your heart as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah1 in the wilderness,
9. when your forebears tested Me, they tried Me, even though they had seen My work.
10. Forty years I was disgusted by a generation,2 declaring, “‘They are a people of straying hearts, and they would not know My ways.’
11. Of whom I took an oath in anger, ‘They shall never come to My resting-place!’”

Notes
1. Means “place of testing,” same term used in next verse.
2. Indicates the people living in a certain time period.     

COMMENTARY

Rarely does a psalm build up to such a reversal. Psalm 95, which consists of two sections at variance with one another, reads smoothly, but only because of the bridging phrase between them. Nevertheless, one is still taken aback by the quick change from celebration to (recalled) disgust. How could these the two parts fit together? I here discuss, in order, the first section, the bridge, and the second section, and finally the psalm as a whole, which changes radically in the course of reading.

An Invitation to a Celebration

Psalm 95 is divided by subject, with verses 1 through most of verse 7 being an invitation to celebrate and acknowledge God the Creator and the Lord of Israel. This first section holds together beautifully, marked by a repetition pattern (two parts, each opening with an invitation to celebrate followed by the reason for the celebration). There are seven repetitions (a full biblical number) of invitations to celebrate in worship (each introduced by “let us”), and connective repetitions of “make” and “hand.” Indeed, both groups of invitations to celebrate in worship reflect a sense of excitement, in that the verbs seem out of order: singing preceding the arrival in God’s presence and bowing of the knee coming after prostration.

The first part of the opening section is certainly the louder and broader. Singing and shouting dominate the celebration, and the reason given is God’s Creation. As Schaefer points out, the breadth is emphasized by vertical (depths and peaks) and horizontal (sea and land) extremes. Further, Weiser notes that the depths and peaks are associated in biblical literature (and in the literatures of the surrounding cultures) with the realms of foreign gods. It is therefore appropriate in celebrating the One God of Creation that His rule over these areas be noted.

The second part of the opening section speaks of the people Israel. The singing gives way to acts of worship (bowing, prostration), and the cause for celebration is now the connection to the people. (The term “creator” in verse 6 is from the root “make,” used in Deuteronomy 32:6, 15 in regard to creating the people of Israel.) Greater intimacy might also be reflected by the change in opening verbs, in the first part “go forth” and in the second part “come,” reflecting a closer association of the speaker with the group.

As the first section concludes, then, it has become more specific, more directly related to its audience. The call to celebrate is based on an intimate relationship.

The Bridge

A brief statement provides a bridge from the first section to the second: “this day, if you would but heed His voice.” At first, the opening term, “this day,” seems to be part of the foregoing call for celebration. However, it also is a part of the next phrase, an immediate demand to heed God’s voice. It is surprising in its own right owing to the sharp change of content, but the speaker also certainly sets the audience back on its heels with the use of “you.” There had been a growing intimacy between the speaker and his audience. Suddenly, they are no longer together in a group, and he speaks at them.

The Recollection of Disgust

The seriousness of the second section increases as it progresses. Through verse 8, the reader and audience might well assume that the words are those of the speaker. With the appearance of the first person (v.9), it is clear that God is being quoted. The term “voice” in verse 7, first understood as a general word for commandment, now takes on a literal implication of God's direct voice as well.

The tone of the second section is unmistakable. The progression is stark. The Hebrew term im, which means “if only” in the bridging section, is used again in the final verse, where it means “they shall not.” In this section, all is rebellion and dissociation between God and His people. Previously the speaker had asked them to “come” and celebrate, but now they are denied the possibility of “coming” to His “resting place” (v. 11). Indeed, “My resting place,” a term for the Temple (Deut. 12:9–10), is also a pun, for the term can mean “My peace” to which they shall not come, a reflection of the extremely cold relationship between God and Israel.

The story of the specific rebellion referred to is found in Exodus 17:1–7. However, this section of the psalm is clearly a summary of the desert period, and a certain telescoping is implied. Note that the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert was not a result of the incident cited. Rather, it was the result of rebelling against God on another occasion (see Num. 20:1–13).

So ends Psalm 95, on as negative a note as the beginning seemed positive.

An Overview

Early biblical academic scholars tended to split Psalm 95, claiming that the two sections could not originally have been part of the same poem. However, since neither section reads as a complete psalm, that view has been almost universally abandoned.

With the exclusive emphasis of the second section on the desert period, one retroactively notes that the first section includes a number of terms that reflect back to Moses’ exhortation to the people in Deuteronomy 32, at the end of that era. (The terms are “make,” “rock,” “anger,” and “this day” – see Deut. 34:4, 6, 15, 22, 31, 37, and 44.) This might also hint at the unity of the psalm, with both sections harking back to the desert period.

Is there a reading that brings the two sections closer together? An acquaintance, Yehuda Waksman, suggests that one of the effects of the second section is to force a rereading and a reinterpretation of the first. When read initially, the tone of the first section is certainly one of celebration, the speaker orchestrating or initiating it, as it were. Given the second section, however, the first can be seen instead as chastisement, the assumption being that the speaker does not address a sympathetic audience, but rather a people who were in fact refusing to celebrate. (In modern metaphor, this would be the preacher begging those of his flock who do not come to worship to do so and give thanks.) The speaker seeks to move them first by citing Creation, and, failing that, he then tries to do so on a more personal basis—God’s intimate relationship to the people. Again (one presumes in this reading) they refuse, eliciting the angry "bridge," approximately, "Would you listen already?!" A major failure is implied here. The very people that once disobeyed in the desert (the rebellion he will recall in the second section) now do not understand the need to acknowledge and celebrate through worship! Once they failed facing crisis. Now they fail facing well-being.

A further development from rereading the first section as chastisement would be to allow the bridging verse to be applied to either section equally. After the first section, it would be a cry of frustration by the speaker. Such a reading is indeed negative. The psalm becomes a particularly dark reflection on the people.

The initial reading of the first section (as celebration), then, in retrospect also becomes a poignant reminder of what might have been, but what is not.

*          *          *          *          *          *
Additional Note

Since the seventeenth century, Psalm 95 has been the first of a series of psalms (through 99) recited to welcome the Sabbath on Friday night in the Jewish liturgy. It may be that the psalm’s association both with Creation and (indirectly) the Exodus was one of the reasons for its inclusion. Recollection of the Creation and the Exodus are cited in the Jewish tradition as the two basic reasons for observance of the Sabbath. (I comment further on Psalms 95–100 after Psalm 100.)


The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.

HEBREW TEXT
(א) לְכוּ נְרַנְּנָה לַיהֹוָה נָרִיעָה לְצוּר יִשְׁעֵנוּ:
(ב) נְקַדְּמָה פָנָיו בְּתוֹדָה בִּזְמִרוֹת נָרִיעַ לוֹ:
(ג) כִּי אֵל גָּדוֹל יְהֹוָה וּמֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל עַל כָּל אֱלֹהִים:
(ד) אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ מֶחְקְרֵי אָרֶץ וְתוֹעֲפֹת הָרִים לוֹ:
(ה) אֲשֶׁר לוֹ הַיָּם וְהוּא עָשָׂהוּ וְיַבֶּשֶׁת יָדָיו יָצָרוּ:
(ו) בֹּאוּ נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה נִבְרְכָה לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה עֹשֵׂנוּ:
(ז) כִּי הוּא אֱלֹהֵינוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ עַם מַרְעִיתוֹ וְצֹאן יָדוֹ הַיּוֹם אִם בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ:
(ח) אַל תַּקְשׁוּ לְבַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָה כְּיוֹם מַסָּה בַּמִּדְבָּר:
(ט) אֲשֶׁר נִסּוּנִי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם בְּחָנוּנִי גַּם רָאוּ פָעֳלִי:
(י) אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה אָקוּט בְּדוֹר וָאֹמַר עַם תֹּעֵי לֵבָב הֵם וְהֵם לֹא יָדְעוּ דְרָכָי:
(יא) אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי בְאַפִּי אִם יְבֹאוּן אֶל מְנוּחָתִי:

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