“O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!”
I pray these words deep in the bush of Subukia, Kenya. The music of my spirit is accompanied by a rooster’s solo, backed by a predawn chorus of unfamiliar insects and animals.
In the kitchen, young Brother Florentine, a native Tanzanian, prepares a breakfast of coffee, tea, hot milk, bananas and eggs. The whistling teakettle and jostling of dishes accompany the sentiments of this lovely psalm.
I am visiting one of my Franciscan brothers, Father Max Langenderfer, who ministers with the friars of the Kenyan province. No matter where I am, I begin each day with Psalm 95. It is the only psalm I can pray completely from memory. I don’t always feel like making a joyful noise, but this psalm reminds me that God holds the depths of the earth—and of my spirit—in his hand. I begin most days in a less exotic setting than Africa. But these words remind me—wherever I am—that the Lord is “a great King above all gods” (verse 3), infinitely greater than the false gods that may tempt me: ego, discouragement, perfectionism, anxiety over the past and fear of the future.
Keeping the Heart Soft
The main reason I begin my day with Psalm 95 is its challenge: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” (verse 7). God will speak, if only I do not harden my heart. I implore God that my heart will stay soft and that I won’t be “stubborn”—as one translation renders the expression “hardened heart.” I beg God to let me miss no opportunities to hear him speak.
The truth of the Incarnation convinces me that God shows his face and speaks in all human encounters. But in my preoccupation, moodiness or hardness of heart, I can miss the splendor of such moments.
Dose of Divine Anger?
I used to be troubled by the strong words that end Psalm 95. God suddenly speaks in the first person, and his words are not happy. The divine anger seems almost out of control: “For 40 years I loathed that generation….in my anger I swore…” (verses 10 and 11).
Is this God’s just wrath threatening? Might it not rather be an incredibly vulnerable lament? Is it possibly a loving parent’s fear that we, his children, will never come to know his peace? I can easily get lost in the pain of failure and forget the gracious ways God works. That so upsets God, who wants only my happiness. Think of this lasting 40 years (see verse 10) and you sense God’s misery!
Scholar and Bible translator Eugene Peterson captures this well in his rendering of Psalm 95’s conclusion. After lamenting how his people just didn’t get it during their time in the desert, he translates, “Exasperated, I [God] exploded, ‘They’ll never get where they’re headed, never be able to sit down and rest.’”
My African journey had its challenges: missed flight, lost luggage, jet lag, difficulty sleeping. But the Lord has serenaded my restless heart with singing and dancing at a secondary-school Mass in Nairobi, in the serene yet spirited worship of the native peoples in the outstation churches and in the warm, gracious hospitality from everyone I met.
A gentle voice breaks through my prayerful imagining. Brother Florentine calls me to breakfast. “O that today you would listen to his voice”: God has already begun speaking.
Understanding Psalm 95
Psalm 95 begins with praise of God as king and creator of the universe (verses 4-5; notice “hand” at the beginning of verse 4 and the end of verse 5: “He’s got the whole world in his hands”) and as maker and shepherd of Israel (verses 6-7a).
A prophet-like challenge follows (verses 7b-11): If we are God’s people/sheep, then we should obey God’s word. Let the experience of Israel’s ancestors at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7) be a warning. We praise God for what God has done, but recognize that this involves a challenge for us as well.