Alter is a stellar Hebrew scholar, whose translation and commentary is more concerned with language than theology, though he rightly notes that the one informs the other. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Alter’s inferences, and his evaluation of the Biblical texts is firmly humanist (some inerrantists will find him heretical), however, it is both a pleasure and a challenge to read his commentary on the words and language of the Psalms. Even so, I find myself unable to detach myself from the theology of the Psalms and they persist in drawing me to the attitude of meditation, prayer and worship. It is this strange mixture of clinical forensics and devotion that drives me to sally forth with a theology and comments on the translation though, regarding the latter, I must stress that I’m almost entirely dependant on Alter and NET Bible.
Why Psalm 95?
Like Psalm 82 (which I addressed last week), it uses several Hebrew words for God, including Elohim (אלחים), YHWH (יהוה) and El (אל), but there are other interesting theological features that I’d like to comment on. Also, like Psalm 82, if you believe that the Bible teaches that there is more than one God, then Psalm 95 is not your friend.
PS, note that the Hebrew letters should be read from right to left and it’s something that seems to send text programs like MS Word into conniptions, which was irritating in the preparation of these notes. I earnestly hope my Hebrew spelling is adequate.
Here’s the whole Psalm, according to the NIV translation;
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
The first line of verse 1 identifies the object of worship - the LORD. Here the NIV follows the convention of the KJV in rendering the Hebrew word YHWH (יהוה) as “LORD” with full capitals. In English, the Hebrew word YHWH used to be translated “Jehovah” (the word is a mash up of the Hebrew consonants of יהוה with the vowels of the Hebrew word “Adonai” or Lord), however a more faithful pronunciation is more likely to be “Yahweh”. It’s literal meaning is something like “I am what I am”, and it’s the word that God uses to describe Himself in Exodus 3:14. It is the name of God that is most commonly used in the context of Covenant. I previously discussed this name here, again relying on Alter's Commentary on the Books of Moses.
Verse 3 expands on the theme of praise to YHWH, but it uses two different words for God, the second of which is properly translated “gods”. This needs some explaining, and to do so, I’ll use Alter, because he retains the order of the Hebrew words in his translation,
For a great God is the Lord, and great king over all the gods.
Here’s Alter again, with the English transliteration and Hebrew words inserted at the appropriate points;
For a great God (El/אל) is the Lord (Elohim/אלחים), and great king over all the gods (Elohim/אלחים).
Note that Elohim is used to refer to “God” and “gods”. So, how do we know that the "God" of Israel is not actually "Gods" of Israel? One, of many, reasons is that the pronoun in verse 7 is firmly singular - "...for He is our God (Elohim/אלחים)...", not "...for they are our Gods....".
Various attempts have been made to differentiate between Elohim and YHWH. The most notable I have seen to date is the Mormon Endowment Ceremony (a rite that is liberally borrowed from Freemasonry) in which Elohim and YHWH are presented as two separate characters.
I find such an attempt at differentiation entirely artificial and certainly not derived from the Biblical use of the words. Furthermore, it totally defeats the sense of the scenario described in the first three verses of Psalm 95. It is much less forced to understand that the Psalmist is using different words to describe the same God. To try to illuminate the scenario presented in the Psalm, here's a very approximate reading (I have borrowed Verse 2 directly from Alter);
Come, let us sing to YHWH, let us worship the Only One to whom we cling to save us from the storm
Let us greet Him in acclaim, in songs let us shout out to Him
For Elohim is a truly great God, and he dominates all other elohim
The description of YHWH, Elohim and El as King (Melech/ומלך in verse 3) is significant in ancient near eastern culture, because individual kings, not committees, ruled kingdoms. There can only be One King, not two, and not many, else the ancient Hebrews could have cleaved to another “Rock” (tsoor tsoor/לצור).
Verses 4 and 5 go on to proclaim His dominion over the “depths”, the “heights”, the “sea” and the “dry land”. So, not only is He “king” over earth, but also the heavenly realms, where the “gods” reside.
The mention of the sea here is noteworthy, because in Canaanite mythology, the creation was wrought as the Sky God defeated the Primordial Sea Monster. The proper name for the Sky God is “Elyon” (which is co-opted into Biblical Hebrew as one of the proper names for the God), and the sea monster turns up under various pseudonyms, including Tehom, Behemoth and Rahab, and quite frequently as a nameless, dark chaos that claws away at the land on which the people dwell safely. It is not clear whether the Psalmist borrows his imagery from Canaanite mythology here, but whatever he thinks of the Canaanite theology, he polemically places the God of the Hebrews as having unchallengeable dominion over the Canaanite Pantheon. In other words, the Canaanite “Elyon” and “Tehom”, together with all the other “Elohim” in the cosmos are answerable to the One who has the Name above all Names.
I need to mention the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression here. It teaches that the Heavenly Father we know was brought into being by a succession of Heavenly Fathers before Him, who are all progressing in glory and power. This is not the scenario described in Psalm 95. The Psalm places all other “gods” below YHWH, not above Him, as Eternal Progression would have us believe. Elohim cannot be the God “over” these “lesser elohim” if, indeed they are greater than Him. Eternal Progression simply makes no sense in the context of the Psalm.
Verses 6 and 7 provide a segue into the second half of the Psalm, in which the emphasis shifts from the theology of God to what how we should live. This transition is a common pattern in the Bible, and its importance cannot be under-estimated. There can be a tendency in academic circles to focus on the theology without considering its impact on everyday, human life. Likewise, some worshipping communities tend to focus on practice without seemingly asking why they should behave the way they do. One comment on-line summarized this latter position when the poster wrote, “all I want to be is good”. The Bible does not recognize such a dichotomy. The way of life of God’s people flows out of their understanding of God – the nature and character of God directs the life of His people. The theology and practice are two legs on which the same body stands and walks. Two examples of this in Biblical literature are the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Paul’s entire Epistle to the Romans, but this principal permeates all scripture. Things go wrong in church life when crass theology gives fruit to abusive and errant practice. Theology is important because it informs the decisions made by the community of believers and, in my opinion, dysfunctional community life stems from bad theology. It is something that is abundantly evident in the cults.
The final section of the Psalm invokes the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert, after they left Egypt and before they entered the Promised Land. The puns on the places of “quarrelling” and “testing” (Meribah and Masseh) are transparent (see NIV footnotes). The Psalm rails against the fractious children that God had delivered from Egypt and warns its own audience not to follow them. As the Exodus story shows, it was because of sin that God forbade them from entering the Land, which is a theme that Paul invokes in Romans 3:23 – they fell (died) in the desert, before they could cross over.
Finally, the “resting-place” in the conclusion of verse 10 has a rich theology of its own that is worth reflecting on. It starts out as the physical Land of the Promise, where Abraham would find a home with his sons (Genesis 12:1-7). However, it transpired through Biblical history that merely living in the Land in a physical sense was not sufficient to enjoy the promised rest, so it becomes a metaphor for living in the place where the Kingship of God is effective – the Kingdom of God. In it, God’s people enjoy the privileges and protection of their Divine King. They are reconciled with God and the relationship between God and His “flock” is restored (Psalm 95:7) .
Christians believe that the real Exodus was effected by Christ, at the Cross, and when we are “in” Him, we are transported into the Land of rest and promise. The end goal of this journey is the assembling of God’s people, united in joyful, communal worship of their divine King. This Psalm rightly belongs in Christian liturgy.
In conclusion, Psalm 95 presents a firmly monotheistic perspective of the heavens and the earth. Whatever other “Elohim” exist, they are subject to the God who dominates heaven and earth. In line with Biblical thought generally, the Psalm traces a line from the nature and character of God to how we should live our lives. The aim of this journey through the sea is to bring God’s people to the place they are united with Him and to each other in joyful worship, which brings the Psalm full circle to its opening statement:
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD.”