Passing the Test — Psalm 95

Reflections on Psalm 95 —

When I come to God in prayer, do I really believe He can do anything He pleases and cares for me deeply?

For four hundred years, the Israelites were slaves to Egyptian taskmasters, brutally suffering abuse after abuse. Then suddenly God arose. With testifying signs and wonders, He dramatically delivered them, first with plagues that were undeniably supernatural, predicted by God Himself before being carried out. Then He miraculously divided the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross to freedom. He then caused the waters to collapse onto Pharaoh and his pursuing chariots, in one fell swoop destroying the most powerful army of its day (Exodus 14:13-31).

No more than a few days later, the Israelites approached Rephidim in the lower Sinai Peninsula, parched from a day’s journey in the desert. They scanned the horizon, squinting in the blowing sand, looking expectantly for the oasis. They were disappointed. The place was dry as a bone. Not a drop of water in sight.  We can almost hear the grumbling murmurs, the incredulous cat-calls at their leader’s ineptness, the cadence of complaints against God.

It was one unfounded accusation too many.  By once again refusing to believe God could help them, they pushed God over the brink of His patience. As a result, an entire generation would not see the Promised Land.

The incident at Rephidim, found in Exodus 17:1-7, was on David’s mind as he penned Psalm 95. As he reflected on the historical account of that day, the Spirit prompted him[1] to write a lesson on the importance of trusting in what God says about Himself.

A Joyful Start

David begins Psalm 95 with beautifully written lyrics singing praise to God, thanking Him for His deliverance, His greatness, His Creative and Sovereign grip on the world, and for the way He lovingly provides for His chosen people.

“O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods;

“…in whose hand are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it, and His hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”

–Psalm 95:1-7a

This is the part of Psalm 95 I always remember. It is a simple call to worship in which David masterfully praises three aspects of God:

  • He is the God of power–a great King above all gods
  • He is the God of nature–He holds creation in His hands
  • He is the God of nurturing–He provides for His chosen ones like a shepherd cares for his sheep.

Left to themselves, these first seven verses could easily be the chorus of a beautiful hymn. But in the mysterious mind of God, they are only the introduction of what is to come.

At the end of verse 7, the tone changes. David, led by the Holy Spirit, quickly transitions from a call to worship to a lesson in holy living. He has something much weightier in mind than a good chorus. David is about to teach a lesson about “hardening” the heart.

Teachable Moments

Today, if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, “When your fathers tested Me, they tried Me, though they had seen My work.”

–Psalm 95:7b-9

David recounts the history lesson from Exodus 17 about how Israel hardened their hearts in the desert. They had seen His work, and yet still did not believe. Soon after crossing the Red Sea, God purified a poisoned water hole (Exodus 15:22-25), repeatedly fed 600,000 people every morning with manna, and somehow raised enough quail to feed them all (Exodus 16:1-21)–impossible feats performed in a barren wasteland. Yet in spite of all these evidences, when the next test came, Israel failed again–they refused to believe in God’s power and love.

The “hardened” heart is not like a physical hardening, like the hardening of arteries when we eat too much salt. It is a spiritual condition, brought on by disbelief in God. In his commentary on Psalm 95, Paul calls it an “unbelieving heart” and adds an emphatic descriptor “evil” to show it was not a trivial offense (Hebrews 3:12). The unbelieving Israelites refused to believe in the powerful, loving God. They called into question God’s integrity, raising a spiteful jab at the Holy One: “…is He really among us?”  (Exodus 17:7).

When God doesn’t change the thing that is wrong in life, we do the same thing. We doubt He is who He says He is. After repeated prayers seem to go unanswered, we doubt His goodness. Like the Israelites, we think, “He can’t change this”, or “He doesn’t care that I’m suffering.”

Just because God doesn’t change what’s wrong in life doesn’t mean He can’t, or won’t. Psalm 95:1-7 reminds us that God is a Shepherd, and we are the “sheep of His hand”. Like a shepherd, He cares deeply for the welfare of His flock. It reminds us the depths of the sea and the highest mountains are in His hand, too. Therefore, God not only leads His flock to pasture, He can shape and form the pasture exactly the way He wants.

This suggests that God shapes and forms the very circumstances in which we find ourselves. Any good teacher knows that kids learn best in teachable moments. God is an awesome teacher because He not only uses teachable moments, He customizes them to accomplish His purpose. The incident at Meribah is one example. This wasn’t a logistical blunder on the part of Moses. Israel’s arrival at Rephidim was calculated and planned by God. Moses later dubbed the barren place “Massah”, a Hebrew word meaning “test”.

Joseph’s life is another example in which we see God orchestrating a test. The favorite son of Jacob, Joseph was sold into slavery by his envious brothers, then thrown into prison wrongfully when his boss’s wife made a pass at him. These sufferings were not simply the spiteful acts of meanness by jealous brothers. Psalm 106:19 says, “the word of the Lord tested Joseph”, indicating that God Himself made it happen. The key word “test” could also be translated “refine”, suggesting God’s “testing” had an end goal; something better for Joseph’s future. It suggests God had a plan to shape and form Joseph into a mature and wise man; a vast upgrade from his meager current state. In his later years, Joseph was able to see his trials as a valuable tool of refinement in God’s hands, comforting his guilty brothers that “they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).  And good it was, for Joseph’s trials were the necessary steps that led him to becoming second in command of all Egypt, a position from which his wisdom saved the populated world during a seven-year famine.

Like the waterless desert of Rephidim and the mistreatment of Joseph by his own brothers, God sets up tests to prove the integrity of our faith. He refines believers, scrapes off the rough edges and conforms us into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28-29). God’s tests are hard, but if we seek His help, He is more than willing to assist. He doesn’t take us out of the trial. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, He gives us what we need to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Therefore, we are to welcome His testing, and with His strength, endure it. It is the transformation to which we are called (Romans 12:2), and the end result is maturity (James 1:2-3).  According to Paul’s commentary in Hebrews 3, the one who trusts God through the trials finds rest of soul.

Consequences of a Hardened Heart

God is always pleased to see us grow to maturity this way. He loves to see us trusting Him even when things aren’t the way we like. He loves it when we are content in Him.

On the flip side, it is greatly displeases Him when by our bitter complaining we demonstrate our unbelief.

Such was the case with Israel when they failed the test at Rephidim. They did not believe God was going to fix what was wrong in their life, and so they whined. The whining was so bad, Moses felt compelled to give the place a second surname. He called it “Meribah”, which in Hebrew means “place of strife”. When things aren’t going our way, we can become discontent with our lot in life and discontent with God. We complain and ask, “God, why don’t You hear my prayer?” We can’t understand why a loving God won’t fix our problems when we want, and how we want.

By their unbelief and strife, Israel failed the test. This was no simple misdemeanor. When God graded their work, He didn’t grade on the curve. It was a big fat “F” with epic implications. Listen to the gravity of God’s judgment as He recalled their sin:

“For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways. Therefore, I swore in My anger, truly they shall not enter into My rest.”

–Psalm 95:10-11

Israel’s unbelief was not just distasteful, but loathful to God. As a result, that entire generation missed out on the experience of God’s rest–that perfect state of peace and security our soul longs for.

One of the greatest errors of contemporary Christianity is the idea that God never gets angry with Christians. When the scriptures refer to God’s anger or wrath, we assume it’s referring to the fate of unbelievers at the end of time. Israel’s failure at Rephidim teaches us otherwise. These were chosen people of God who provoked God to great anger. We scoff at the hard-hearted Israelites, but instead we ought to be more reflective and learn from them. We do the very same, boneheaded things they did. Paul teaches us that the Israelites are examples for us (I Corinthians 10:6). He cautions if we don’t seek daily encouragement from other, committed Christians, we can fall prey to the same hardened heart the Israelites displayed at Rephidim (Hebrews 3:12-13). By the way, this suggests the church sorely needs courageous believers who invest time in others, speaking candid, loving words of truth to one another.

Thankfully, God’s anger is relatively brief, and for the one who forsakes his doubt and reaffirms his trust, God’s infinite compassion is always there to restore and affirm.

Affecting My Prayer

People often ask, “why would a loving God cause suffering?”  It is not as though God were capricious, inflicting pain for spite. He is not childishly vindictive, getting back at us for our indiscretions. On the contrary, suffering is one of many tests God uses to expose the weak areas of our faith in order to build them up. God tests His people intentionally–always with purpose. He puts us in difficult situations, creates discomfort, and even uses affliction, wrongful accusations, mistreatment, or suffering as His test method.

We should try to pass God’s tests, recognize them as customized training scenarios He planned for us. Tests always involve time, so we need endurance to wait it out, see it through to the end. Remember God designed the test to make us better than we are. It is a difficult means to a glorious end. Be content with that. Believe God has a greater good in mind, wait it out, and be content with His provision in the meantime.

It is with this attitude that our prayer and worship are most meaningful, even in the hardest of times. Psalm 95 has challenged me to pause before I pray and think to myself something like this: “I’ve prayed this prayer a thousand times, and nothing has happened. Am I praying to a notion of God; a cold, stone image that never responds?  Or do I really believe God can do anything He pleases, and that He cares about me?

I have as much evidence that God is powerful and loving as the Israelites did that day in Rephidim–even more so, because unlike them, I have the complete Word of God testifying to His mighty acts and great compassion.  I will take Him at His word. I will believe I am His sheep, and He is my Shepherd. I will believe the highest mountains and lowest valleys are in His hands, so there is nothing He cannot do. I will believe He is above all kings, powers, and authorities on earth and heaven, so no one can thwart His plans. This is the God to Whom I pray.  I believe in Him. I will come to Him and worship. I will bow down, and kneel before the Lord my God and Maker.

[1] See Paul’s commentary on Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7.

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