Psalm 95 and discipleship failure: An invitation and a warning

O come, let us sing unto the LORD:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving,
and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the deep places of the earth:
the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it:
and his hands formed the dry land.
O 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.
To day if ye will hear his voice,
Harden not your heart, as in the provocation,
and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness:
When your fathers tempted me,
proved me, and saw my work.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation,
and said, It is a people that do err in their heart,
and they have not known my ways:
Unto whom I sware in my wrath
that they should not enter into my rest.

—Psalm 95 (KJV)

In services of Christian worship, Psalm 95 is often used as an “invitatory” or “call to worship.” It is both: invitation and summons. And not only to formal corporate worship but to a life of worship, which is what Christian discipleship essentially is.

Discipleship. Discipleship is a process. It is the process of becoming a follower and a learner. Generally speaking, we all become followers of and learners from someone, as Bob Dylan realized when he became of follower of Jesus. He sang on his conversion album, Slow Train Coming:

Gotta Serve Somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief . . .

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name . . .

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks . . .

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir . . .

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed . . .

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say . . . 

Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

It doesn’t matter who you are, or who you think you are. Dylan casts a large and imaginative net, managing to troll the high and mighty while speaking frankly and non-condescendingly to the dirty, the rotten, and the down and out. And in that last stanza, in his own playful or sassy way, Dylan tells us: it’s not about him. He’s just the messenger, and it’s not his message. It’s just a fact built into the social fabric of the universe and the architecture of the human heart: you’re going to have to serve somebody.

So also with Psalm 95: the focus of the invitation is not just to serve and worship in some absolute and open-ended way. That is a given: we will serve and worship whether we want to or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. The focus is on the object, the “whom”: whom will we serve and worship? The psalmist’s invitation, which we should understand as the Spirit’s invitation: serve “the LORD,” that is, serve the God whose proper name was delivered to Moses out of a bush that burned but was not consumed. How? The character of our service and worship is prescribed by the character of that God. That is the message of this psalm.

This psalm is a coin with two sides, a personality with a dark side. One side it accepting the invitation. The other side is rejecting it. The psalm discusses both. And we need to consider both as well.

Which is what makes this psalm appropriate for our moment, which is a moment of widespread discipleship failure.

Yes, discipleship—the process of becoming a learner from and servant to the Lord—can fail. This has always been the case. One way of seeing the Gospels in the New Testament is that they tell us about Jesus; but they also describe the process of discipleship to Jesus. In the Gospel according to Mark, which most scholars believe is the first Gospel written, the story of discipleship is largely a story of discipleship failure. So discipleship failure is a possibility—an actuality—from the very start of this history of discipleship to God through Jesus Christ. It is easy to find instances throughout history. The challenge is to recognize it in our own day, and in ourselves.

Through the Psalm, section by section:

O come, let us sing unto the LORD:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving,
and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.

The imperative verbs: “Come” means: if you are stationary, get into motion, leave the place where you are and move your body and your spirit to this place, the place of worship. If you are in motion, correct your course: this is your destination, not that. “Sing” means: activate your voice. Listening is essential to the learning that is a core component of discipleship, but you cannot be fully a disciple without activating your own voice. And when you activate your voice, in the first instance—in most basic and necessary utterance of you life of discipleship, to which you must constantly return—you are not just talking, you are singing, which probably means you are not making up the words yourself and singing solo, but rather you are joining your voice to an ongoing chorus. “Let us make a joyful noise”: the person invited to come and sing is invited to join a choir.

We are not invited, at least not at first, to address other people with our own teaching, interpretation, exhortation. We are not invited, at least not at first, to talk about other people either. We are invited to join a song that is to the Lord and about the Lord. I think this clearly does not mean that we are never to get around to talking to each other. (I am talking to you now!) I do think it means that speech to others that is not firmly grounded in long experience of talking to the Lord about the Lord is not likely to be the most valuable speech. It may not aid discipleship. It may flow out of discipleship failure and incite failure in others.

What is the character and content of the song we are invited to join? Its character is joy, and its content is thanksgiving.

Joy has to be there from the start of our day, from the start of our speech. If not, it may not ever arrive. I am pretty sure that for you and me today, joy will not arise from our observation of what is going on in the world around us unless we are previously attuned to joy by our opening speech to and about the Lord. If we are attuned to joy from the start, we have a chance of seeing the hand of God at work here and there throughout our lived world, and of being moved to joy by those observations. But if we do not start with the joy of the Lord, with joy in the Lord, we are likely to fail to see the Lord’s hand at work. We are likely to be moved to despair by the realities around us that are observable to the eyes and the heart that are not attuned to joy from the start.

For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.

As we join our voices into this song about the Lord, we find it saying—we find ourselves singing—something strange. “The LORD”—the specific deity referenced by the name given to Moses from the burning bush—is “a god.” Pardon an observation from an editor: here our English Bibles make a mistake when the capitalize “God.” The word “god” here is a common noun. Our translators recognize that fact when they say “a” god, but they then immediately contradict it by capitalizing it. We should capitalize proper nouns, that it, the specific names of people, places, and thing (James, Tennessee, the Supreme Court of the United States) but not generic nouns (an editor, a state, a court, or a god).

This is habitual in Scripture: it refers to other gods! For reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t think this acknowledgment of other gods is meant metaphysically. It is an acknowledgment and indictment of human experience: we find all around us, and if we are honest, also in ourselves, worship of and service to many objects other than the Lord who spoke out of the burning bush. Whatever one learns from and serves above all else is the person or thing that one worships, is one’s god. If we will learn from Scripture, this is an essential point.

Our strict monotheism—our tendency to say quickly and easily that there is only one God—is our own dogma. It is not biblical. It lets us off the hook. If there is only one God, then we cannot be guilty of worshiping another god. But Scripture warns us constantly, throughout, that we are in danger of serving other gods. This psalm tells us not to deny it. This psalm tells us: sure, there are many gods, but the Lord is great among them, is in fact the greatest, the king of them all, above them all.

We cannot properly acknowledge and worship the Lord in a vacuum. We acknowledge and worship him properly only when we see clearly all of the other things and persons that are worshiped and served by everyone on earth, and especially the aims, ends, objects to which we ourselves are prone to orient our thought and action. We must see them all clearly—and see the Lord exalted above them all, greater in worth, greater in worthiness to be worshiped and praised. Greater in worthiness to be the teacher to whom we listen, whose teaching forms our day-to-day life.

One way, then, of conceiving of discipleship: that process of seeing all other gods diminished and eventually reduced to nothing before and beneath the awesome presence of the one God. So this is the paradox: to insist easily at the start that there is only one God is to deny that there are other gods that we need to forsake, and thus to guarantee that we will not forsake them but will instead continue to serve them while claiming that we are serving the one God.

In his hand are the deep places of the earth:
the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it:
and his hands formed the dry land.

When we sing about God, what do we say? Most fundamentally: God is not like anything in this world, because God is the maker of everything in this world. The most impressive and daunting features of earthly geography—the mountains that are so high that we cannot climb them and the seas so deep and wild that they threaten to engulf and drown us—are God’s creations. To us they are massive, and they inspire a kind of spiritual awe—even for us moderns who know that people have climbed and even flown over the mountains, and descended deep into the seas in submarines. But God made them with his hands, so to speak, just as I might make a little figure out of Play-Doh. God is the Creator.

O 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.

The repeated “Come!” call us back to the place where this psalm started: an invitation and summons. The summons is not merely repeated but intensified: sure, we sing together to God and about God, but let us be clear than in so doing we are worshiping, bowing down, kneeling. That is to say: we willingly subordinate ourselves, humble ourselves, adopt a physical posture that expresses a moral and spiritual intention: we subject ourselves to God.

How proudly we modern people resist any such suggestion! We might not mind being called to friendship with God. And if we know the full course of Christian discipleship, we know that we are in fact called ultimately to just that: Jesus wants to call us (in the name of God) not slaves but friends. But the starting place of discipleship has to be bowing down, subjecting ourselves. Why? Because we are already bowing down to other gods. We are already discipling ourselves to other teachers, hearing other voices and letting them control our thinking and our doing, and the only pathway to liberation from these other masters (who want to make us not friends but slaves) is deliberate subjection of ourselves to the only one who is true, the only one who deserves our worship, the only one who can confer ultimate salvation, liberation, freedom, and friendship: the Lord.

The psalmist then concludes his invitation by opening up the picture so that it shows not just God but God and us. Not just “God” but “our God.” Isn’t that an amazing thing? If God is all that the previous line has said, is it not a wondrous thing that we are invited to attach a possessive pronoun and say “our God”? Possession—ownership—is always mutual. It may have a certain polarity to it, but there is also a symmetry. If we acknowledge that we are God’s then in a certain very real sense God is also ours. There is a metaphysical inequality, but the invitation intends to bridge the metaphysical gap. Eventually, in the pathway of discipleship, we will learn that God in Christ has not simply demanded that we humble ourselves but has humbled himself, emptied himself, for our sake. That is an advanced teaching, a shocking teaching, and maybe this psalm is not yet ready to take us all the way there.

So it introduces a homely metaphor: we are sheep, and the Lord is our shepherd. We are perhaps so used to this metaphor, and so unused to actual sheep, that we easily overlook the dark side of the metaphor: sheep are animals that you breed and tend in order to be able to fleece them, slaughter them, and eat them. We should bear this in mind when we consider the Lord over against all other gods. When we disciple ourselves to other gods, whether they are (remember Dylan’s roll call) rock stars or corporate moguls or politicians, we are giving ourselves over to shepherds who want to fleece us. They are already fleecing us, though we fail to see it, or refuse to see it. And they will in the end consume us.

But the Lord offers to be our shepherd in another sense, in a way that emphasizes care and protection. There is only one good shepherd—which sounds grim, but the good news is that there is a good shepherd. And that shepherd calls to us, invites us. The way of authentic discipleship involves becoming sheep of that one shepherd’s one flock, and of being liberated from every other flock.

To day if ye will hear his voice,
Harden not your heart, as in the provocation,
and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness:
When your fathers tempted me,
proved me, and saw my work.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation,
and said, It is a people that do err in their heart,
and they have not known my ways:
Unto whom I sware in my wrath
that they should not enter into my rest.

I am out of time and will not expand in detail on this second half of the psalm. I will simply note that it is there and commend it to your attention. You will recognize it as a reference to the fact that the Israelites, when they had been liberated from servitude in Egypt, quickly became rebellious against the Lord. It is a warning about discipleship failure. It is a warning that rebellion can make us objects of God’s wrath.

If as Christians we read this latter part of the psalm as a denunciation of non-Christians, we are entirely missing the point, and in a dangerous way. We who have embarked upon the path of discipleship to Jesus are here not being invited to feel smug regarding the doom of others. We are being invited to contemplate the possibility—perhaps even the likelihood—of our own failure. Those who have not been called out by God and led out of bondage are not in a position to rebel against God. Only we who recognize that we are invited to sing for joy and be thankful are in a position to fall into rebellion. Only we who have set out on the path are in a position to “err,” to wander off of it.

Discipleship failure is not the failure to become disciples in the first place. It is to set one’s hand to the plough and then turn back. It is to say “Lord, Lord,”  and not do the things that the Lord commands. It is to claim to be following the Lord who spoke from the burning bush while in fact veering back off into following the will-to-power, the will-to-wealth, the way of exclusion rather than of embrace, the way of hostility rather than the way of peace, the way of taking rather than of giving, the way of hate rather than the way of love. The way of discipleship failure is the way ultimately of restlessness and of wrath.

The psalmist does not write pointless nonsense. The invitation, “Come,” is accompanied by the warning “Do not harden your hearts” only because many who have come have also then hardened their hearts. Discipleship failure is a real possibility. It is an actuality. We can rebel openly. We can also deceive ourselves. We can think we are following when we are not following. And we can think we are following the Lord when we are following another god.

Whom are we serving?

The invitation is real.

The warning is serious.

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