Praise With A Catch
Have you ever been in prayer, only to be upset when you were disturbed? Why were you so upset?
1 Oh come, let's sing to YHWH.
Let's shout aloud to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let's come before his presence with thanksgiving.
Let's extol him with songs!
3 For YHWH is a great God,
a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the deep places of the earth.
The heights of the mountains are also his.
5 The sea is his, and he made it.
His hands formed the dry land.
6 Oh come, let's worship and bow down.
Let's kneel before YHWH, our Maker,
7 for he is our God.
We are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep in his care.
Today, oh that you would hear his voice!
8 Don't harden your heart, as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers tempted me,
tested me, and saw my work.
10 Forty long years I was grieved with that generation,
and said, "It is a people that errs in their heart.
They have not known my ways."
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
"They won't enter into my rest."
World English Bible
Babies crying during worship. Rude whispers during Mass. How many times has our focus been interrupted at gathered prayer? Too many times? Personally, I want to make a comment to the offending party. I tell myself that I want them to focus on God, but, in my heart, I know that I want to control others so I can enjoy my moment of solitude. If my feelings of ecstatic prayer are disturbed by someone and I become angry, whose really at fault?
Praise can have the same selfish end as ecstatic prayer if the focus in on the worshiper, not the worshiped. Praise can lead to a sense of triumphalism, a sense that the worshiper has an exclusive relationship with God and the place of the worshiper is unique among humanity. The worshiper enjoys a privileged place with God and shares in the divine judgment power over others.
Psalm 95 is unique among the psalms. It was a gathering song of praise with a prophetic warning. It called the people to worship and hear the word of the Lord, but reminded them of their ancestors' disobedience and God's wrath.
There seems to be some controversy over the construction of Psalm 95. No one disputes the abrupt change at 95:7b when a song of praise turned into a prophetic warning. Some claim the psalm has a unity, that such prophetic sermons acted as a counter weight to the joy of the psalm. Others claim the psalm was originally a worship song of praise and the warning was added later. Nevertheless, the psalm had a liturgical function as a gathering invocation. After the Babylonian exile, this psalm would have made sense to the worshipers, since popular wisdom held that the Exile was the result of disobedience like that at Meribah and Massah. In Exodus 17:1-7, Meribah and Massah was the place where Moses struck the rock to enable the water to flow. This incident was mentioned as one of the chief reasons the people did not enter the Promise Land immediately.
The psalm began with a invitation to worship (95:1-2) and praise to YHWH for his power over the land and the sea (95:3-5). This invitation-praise pattern continued with the call to worship on bended knee and the recognition of the nation as the people of God (95:6-7). The goal of the psalm seemed to be 95:7a: listen to the Word proclaimed. The question remains: why does the prophetic warning follow the call to listen? Was the prophecy the message itself or was it a caveat for the people to put their full attention to a reading of Scripture after the psalm was sung? If the psalm was a gathering song, it would make sense for the prophecy to act as a warning with a reading to follow (the later sense).
Taken as a whole, the psalm reminds us to curb any temptation to triumphalism. Praise of God does not give us any inside track to God. It does not give us the right to condemn others or any sense of smug superiority. Even when we worship, we need to be reminded that we are not perfect, we need to know temptation is just around the corner. In that way, we can worship God the way he wants to be worshiped, as humble servants.
The next time you are in prayer, take a moment to realize that even the closest times to God are times temptation can rear its ugly head. Resist the temptation to ignore or correct others in the name of "quality time" with the Lord.