The Book of Psalms

Thursday: How to Worship God


Theme: An Unexpected Warning
In this week’s lessons, we learn how and why to worship God, and also see the need to respond rightly to the gospel while there is still time.
Scripture: Psalm 95:1-11
Suddenly in the midst of these strong calls to joyful personal worship, we find an unexpected warning (vv. 7d-11). It is so sudden that some of the more liberal commentators speculate on this being an entirely separate psalm that somehow got attached to the earlier portion. There is no good reason for such speculation. Abrupt changes like this are not infrequent in the psalms, and the warning to hear the voice of God and obey it is actually a critical part of what needs to be said about the worship God accepts. What is worship without obedience? It is mere sham. It calls down the judgments of God the Father and Jesus, who said at one point, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain…” (Matt. 15:8, 9; quoting Is. 29:13).
Here I come back to what I said earlier: worship begins with listening rather than speaking, still less singing or shouting. It requires listening to God as he speaks to us in his Word. Or to say this another way: worship must be based on the preaching of the Word of God. First, we must hear God’s Word. Second, we must obey it. Only then, third, can we praise God joyfully for what we have heard.
Obedience is the sticking point, of course. So this is what God breaks in to talk about in the psalm’s final stanza (vv. 7d-11). It is an oracle in which God refers to something that happened during the years of Israel’s desert wanderings. After the people had come out of Egypt and had passed through the Desert of Sin, they came to a place called Rephidim, where there was no water. This was a serious matter for so large a company of people in so inhospitable an environment. The people had just seen the miracles God did in Egypt to free them from the Egyptian yoke. They should have trusted God to provide for them implicitly. But instead they quarreled with Moses and were almost ready to stone him. God told Moses to take the staff he had used to turn the Nile to blood and use it now to strike a great rock, called the rock at Horeb. When he did this a stream of water came forth from the rock and the people’s thirst was quenched. However, a double name was given to the place. It was called Massah, which means “testing,” because the people tested God by their sinful unbelief; and Meribah, which means “quarreling,” because they quarreled with Moses about the lack of water (see Exod. 17:1-7).
Years later, a similar incident occurred at Kadesh. God provided water there, too. But it was said, “These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them” (Num. 20:13; see vv. 1-13). The two place names occur together in Deuteronomy 33:8.
This is what God brings forward in the psalm as an illustration of the disobedience of the people, as a result of which, not one of them was allowed to enter the Promised Land. In the unfolding of the story, in the books of Exodus and Numbers, it was the refusal of the people to believe the report of Joshua and Caleb about entering and possessing the land that led to the actual judgment of God, according to which every one of that generation except Joshua and Caleb were to die in the wilderness. But the spirit that led to the later unbelief was already present at the place called Massah and Meribah. Testing and quarreling unbelief were typical of the people, and they were present during the entire desert journey.
So the warning is this. If you want to worship God, make sure you do not harden your heart against God’s Word, or quarrel with him or test him, as the ancients did. On the contrary, true worship is: 1) hearing the Word of God; 2) obeying the Word of God; and 3) praising God for it.
Study Questions:

What is the warning embedded in this psalm? Why is it here? How does the passage in Matthew 15 clarify the warning?
What three conclusions can we draw from the warning?
Why must worship be based on preaching from the Word of God? What steps follow hearing his Word?
What results from disobedience?

Reflection: What part does preaching play in your church? Is it the most important element of the worship service?
Application: Has quarreling unbelief ever characterized your relationship with God? What must you do?
Observation: An abrupt change in tone in the Psalms may indicate an important point.

Study Questions
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