“A people whose hearts go astray”

Psalm 95 begins on a note of great comfort and joy and will end on a note of deep challenge.  Like all good preaching, it aims to comfort the disturbed and yet disturb the comfortable.  From verse 8 onwards God is speaking.  The words are a prophetic oracle, sung into the heart of worship, probably by a solo voice, drawing people back to faithful, venturesome, bold discipleship.

The reference now is to a later part of the Exodus story.  We have moved on from the place of Quarrelling and Doubt in Exodus 17.  The people of Israel were to test God in the wilderness again and again – ten times to correspond to the ten plagues brought upon the Egyptians. (Numbers 14.22).

The final testing – the one which finally draws God’s judgement – is the great story of the spies in Numbers 14.  It is a story about doubt and faith.  Moses sends out spies to the land of Canaan. They return and bring back amazing stories of the wonder of the promised land. But the land is filled, ten of them say, with giants who cannot be defeated.

The courage and faith of the people melt away. They rebel and complain and want to return to Egypt.  It is as if the journey has all been for nothing.  They are a people whose hearts have gone astray.

The LORD sees that this generation of Israelites lack the faith to move forward and cross the Jordan.  Their vision and the hearts have shrunk through years of grumbling and complaining.  The best that God can offer then is forty years more wandering in the wilderness, in the half way land between slavery and freedom (14.32-34).

Why are God’s people asked to remember this crisis and this moment of decision as we assemble in worship and come with joy to the LORD?  Character is formed over many years both in people and in communities.  That character is then tested in the moments of crisis and decision which come in every life.  But the formation of character, of strength, of faith, is shaped in the midst of worship as we listen to God’s word.  The Psalm is a call to repentance – so that our hearts may no longer go astray – and also a call to faith.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

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