‘Today’ speaks of opportunity and potential – what I can be now, what I can do now – of seizing the moment and making the present the reality I appreciate and seek. It contrasts with the sentimentality of the past or the ‘if’s and ‘but’s of what might have been; it sits against the wishful thinking of ‘if only’ and the dreamy speculations of the future. ‘Today’ is the present, the now; it can be what I make of it, and what God will allow.

Psalm 95 is all about exactly this ‘today’. It is its fulcrum word, coming at the end of v7:

Today, if ye will hear His voice!

This is the big question. Will I hear His voice and obey it? Will you? It is this phrase that marks the transition from the first part of the psalm (v1-7c) in which the psalmist speaks to his fellows (‘O come, let us sing…’) and the second half (v8-11) in which God speaks. God’s entry into the piece to address us is highly dramatic. And the ‘today’ fulcrum in v7d really draws out the importance of it for each individual. God is about to address me and to address you – and He does so today, right here, right now. We have to decide whether or not we will listen.

  1. O come, let us sing unto the LORD:
    Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
  2. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving,
    And make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
  3. For the LORD [is] a great God,
    And a great King above all gods.
  4. In his hand [are] the deep places of the earth:
    The strength of the hills [is] his also.
  5. The sea [is] his, and he made it:
    And his hands formed the dry [land]
  6. O come, let us worship and bow down:
    Let us kneel before the LORD our maker.
  7. 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,

  8. Harden not your heart, as in the provocation,[And as in] the day of temptation in the wilderness:
  9. When your fathers tempted me,
    Proved me, and saw my work.
  10. 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:
  11. Unto whom I sware in my wrath
  12. That they should not enter into my rest.

We can move through the first two stanzas fairly quickly; they form an important but familiar call to worship (four imperatives in v1-2, two ‘let us’ phrases in v6), and in each case this summons is followed by a reason why (‘For the Lord is a great God …’ v3-5; ‘For He is our God..’ v7). There is singing and joy, but this is counterbalanced by reverence and awe (‘worship, bow down, kneel’).

V3-5 take us on a roller-coaster ride as we move from considering the great King above all gods down to the deep places of the earth, back up to hills, down once more to the seas, and finally to the dry land where we are deposited, Jonah-like, at the end of v5. This helter-skelter journey gives a sense of the scale and wildness of nature that God has created (note the merisms: deeps and hills, seas and dry land).

By contrast, the reason for praising God cited in v7 is pastoral and tender: we are the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand. The wild forces and extremes of nature are nowhere to be found in this scene; now we are in lush pastureland with the sun shining down, happily grazing sheep with a shepherd to take care of them. The contrast is deliberate: the same God who created the awesome extremes of nature also created the dancing sunlight and provides tender care for His people. The contrast is brought out by the double reference to the hand of God in v4 and v7. In God’s hand are the deep places of earth (though vast, they are small in comparison to Him), but also His precious collection of sheep! The two images bring out the transcendence and immanence of God, while the reference to sheep (‘we are the sheep of His hand’) emphasises the bond between Him and us and also provides a foretaste of the words of His son paraphrased in a hymn: ‘none can pluck them from thine hand.’

Back to ‘today’

It is at this point that we arrive back at our fulcrum phrase: ‘today, if ye will hear His voice.’ The significance of the phrase we have already discussed, yet now that we have encountered it within the psalm it seems to sit in mid-air. It neither seems to quite fit with the first part of the psalm (it seems abrupt and doesn’t belong), and nor does it sit with the second because it speaks of God in the third person (‘He’) whereas the rest of the psalm is all God speaking in the first person as ‘I’. The ‘today’ phrase is a marker of transition, therefore; it belongs simultaneously to both halves of the psalm and to neither.

It belongs to the first because the reality is that we can be – and indeed are – God’s sheep even today if we hear His voice (as Jesus himself put it, ’my sheep hear my voice’ John 10:14,27). This is not an airy-fairy future concept of ‘you might one day make it,’ some half-in half-out reality where we can never be quite sure where we belong or whose we are. We are the sheep of His hand and the people of His pasture today; we belong thoroughly and completely to Him, not half to Him and half to someone else. We have been translated (Col 1:13); now are we the sons of God (1 Jn 3:2) (to quote other Biblical metaphors for the same concept). No wonder we are exhorted to worship and praise with the fervour the earlier parts of the psalm command!

But all this comes with a condition. The ‘if’ of ‘today if ye will hear is voice’ is critical. Everything is dependent not only on Him, but also on our response as well. He has made His will and His desire perfectly clear, but it depends also on us. By introducing this conditionality the psalm now strikes an ominous note which provides the introduction to the second half of the psalm with its warning from God: ’Harden not your heart…’

The abruptness of ‘today’ wakes us up from our daydreams and reveries and reminds us that this day and every day there is a choice to be made (‘while it is called today,’ Heb 3:13). The lessons of the past from the wilderness years which God will now go on to recount teach us that this is so. We must seize those lessons and let them sink down deep within us. We might have thought that Psalm 95 was just expressing nice thoughts in its first part, thoughts that we have heard before – and indeed it is. But then it summons us with a terrifying jolt to wake up from whatever slumbers we might have been in to ensure that by our actions we are making the wonderful things that God has promised real in our own lives by the way in which we respond. Now it is high time to wake out of sleep (Rom 13:11), for the leadership and shepherding of God in our lives is not something for some ethereal future, it is thing for right now.

Hard hearts of the past

We should perhaps revisit God’s solemn proclamation which forms the second half of the psalm before commenting on it:

  1. Harden not your heart, as in the provocation,[And as in] the day of temptation in the wilderness:
  2. When your fathers tempted me,
    Proved me, and saw my work.
  3. 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:
  4. Unto whom I sware in my wrath
    That they should not enter into my rest.

The historical example is the Israelites’ rejection of faith in God in the wilderness and their consequent failure to enter the land. Now God draws out for us in His own words His response to those events and the exhortation for us.

The end of the psalm is ominous and foreboding. Just as God had once made His promises known to Abraham by an oath, so He is brought to swear that the wilderness generation would not enter. In precisely the same way, the pastoral bliss, the perfect pasture and good land of v7, will not be ours if we don’t learn the lesson. There are so many negative words here to describe the behaviour of the Israelites: ‘harden, provoke, tempted (x2), proved, err, not know.’ Hardening, provoking and not knowing the Lord were all behaviours of Pharaoh, but now Israel has copied them all. Now the language of temptation and testing – normally what God does to us to develop our characters – is turned on its head and used to describe what man has begun to do to God! They have ‘grieved’ Him just as they ‘vexed (= grieved) His Holy Spirit’ (Is 63:10), frustrating and denying His power and His desire to save them. In a way this is a practical example of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that Jesus spoke of, denying God’s ability to save them. They have ‘not known (His) ways’ (v10), and the consequence of this is that they will ‘not enter (His) rest’; the one is a corollary of the other.

So the imperative God addresses us with is therefore that we ‘harden not our hearts’ (v8). This is the way the second part of the psalm begins and it is the one primary command and exhortation it contains, backed up by the historical example. Instead of hardening we need to open our hearts to Him, to trust Him and to be open to His power to act and deliver in our lives. We must come to ‘know Him’ and His ways, as He invites us to do. This is the very reason why He has revealed Himself to us.

As we have already noted, the ending of the psalm is chilling and grim. It is meant to be. We seem to be reading a conventional psalm of praise, and then suddenly we find that we’re not – and that it is all deliberate to wake us from our apathy, to make us see what is at stake. Now is the time to act; everything depends on what we make of our ‘today’.

Additional Note

The second half of this psalm, v7d-11 is quoted in full and is the subject of extended consideration in Hebrews 3:7-4:13. The writer quotes expressions from the psalm multiple times to hammer the point home. He quotes the whole passage once, then returns to quoting snippets from it a further four times, meaning that its various expressions are repeated as follows:

Today, if you hear his voice (3 times)
Do not harden your hearts (3 times)
They shall not enter my rest (3 times)
As I sware in my wrath (2 times)

The word ‘rest’ is the final word in the psalm in both English and Hebrew. Human life ends by being ‘laid to rest’, but God promises a sabbath rest which far transcends this. The writer to the Hebrews uses this term about ten times in his passage which is fitting given its climactic usage in the psalm and the climactic place in God’s purpose of the great rest which He promises.

Written By Mark Vincent