The bulk of our passage this morning is a direct quote from Psalm 95. That psalm opens with a familiar call to worship. We’ve used it several times to open our own worship service.
Psalm 95:1 ESV
Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Some bible scholars suggest that this psalm was liturgical and frequently used during the preamble of the service. So, as the author begins to quote a portion of the psalm, the context of the entire psalm would have readily come to mind.
Jesus is superior! He’s greater than the angels (Heb 1-2). He’s the better apostle, worthy of more glory than Moses (Heb 3:3). Speaking of Moses; he led a rebellious generation in the wilderness for forty years. Make sure you don’t have that same unbelieving heart in you!
To walk by faith is to fight against the tendency to go astray.
Read Hebrews 3:7-12.
The Spirit of Worship (7a)
The Holy Spirit spoke through the psalmist (Psalm 95:7-11). Yet, we will also see in Hebrews 4:7, the author will attribute this same passage to David. So which is true? Did the Holy Spirit write it or David?
There is an important hermeneutical principle for us to take to heart. We should consider the situation of the author and the original audience because it helps to understand the specific scenario that brought about these words. However, we never want to read the bible in such a way that the words are completely detached from our own situation. All scripture is profitable for all believers in all times (2 Tim 3:16-17).
The first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith attests God’s revealing of himself in a general way through creation, but it goes on to recognize the need for special revelation “which is necessary unto salvation.” That special revelation was accomplished through diverse means (prophecy, Urim and Thummim, casting lots, etc.), but eventually and primarily—the Lord saw fit to write it down “for the better preserving and propagating of the truth.”
Some of our children who know their catechism will be familiar with this. Q. 15. Who wrote the Bible? A. Holy men who were taught by the Holy Spirit . When the word of God was written down, it was done by men who were guided by the Holy Spirit.
2 Peter 1:21 ESV
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Since we know that the Holy Spirit is the author, we know that the word of God is perfect; it’s infallible, and inerrant. Any perceived conflict or contradiction between the human authors is just that, a perception. Errors in the bible have no basis in reality, because to suggest such a thing is to admit that God makes mistakes. It suggests that there is some authority or rule above God that judges him to be lacking integrity.
We can also know with complete confidence that this psalm has relevance to us today. The Holy Spirit continues to speak to us through the word of God.
Worship God in Spirit and Truth
This passage was given in order to justify our worship. We should worship God because we belong to him. Worship is not defined by a physical posture, or a particular frame of mind, or a condition of the heart. Worship incorporates our whole person (body, soul, and spirit). It engages our mind and our affections.
The word of God speaks to the heart of God’s people and we respond with hearts that are softened by the Holy Spirit. Communion with God—whether in song or prayer or meditation—is, as the psalmist says, deep calling to deep (Ps 42:7).
When Jesus explained worship to the woman at the well, he gave the all-important qualification.
John 4:24 ESV
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
› When we worship God according to his will, our hearts will be engaged…
The Heart of Worship (7b-11)
As we have done previously, we should consider the context of the whole psalm, since this community of Jewish Christians were most likely familiar with it from their synagogue worship. Again, this practice of situating ourselves in the original context is important. Once we understand what was being communicated to them, we can more readily understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today.
As I already pointed out, the psalm opens with a corporate call to worship (Psalm 95:1-6). The psalmist calls his audience to sing and praise God with a joyful noise (Psalm 95:1-2). Then he explains why they should do that; because our God is a great King who owns all that he has created (Psalm 95:3-5). Then he returns to a call to worship in v.6, before—once again—explaining why. We should worship him because, just as he owns everything he has created, we also belong to him.
Psalm 95:7 ESV
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice,
The last part of v.7 is where the author of Hebrews begins his quote which includes the rest of the psalm.
The context of Psalm 95 is the rebellion recorded in Exodus 17:1-7. This generation witnessed several miracles that led to their exodus out of Egypt. They saw Moses turn water into blood. The land of Egypt was ravaged by the multiplication of frogs, then gnats, then flies. God sent a plague that wiped out Egyptian livestock. He gave the people and beasts painful boils. God sent hail upon the fields that destroyed everything it hit. Whatever was left was eaten by a plague of locusts. Then God sent pitch darkness upon the land of Egypt for three days. Finally, the firstborn male in each Egyptian household was killed. In each of these plagues, God made a distinction between Egypt and Israel. The plagues only had an impact upon the Egyptians. Israel’s supplies were never impacted.
Since departing Egypt, God had miraculously preserved this same generation in the wilderness. They followed a pillar of cloud by day and were protected by a pillar of fire at night. They crossed the Red Sea and watched it close in over Pharaoh’s army. They drank fresh water from a bitter source after Moses threw a log into it. Shortly after that they received bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger! So, when they arrived at Rephidim and found themselves thirsty, you would think they would have the confidence to trust God’s provision by now. But, instead they quarreled with Moses. So God gave them water from a rock!
Of course, what is confounding about all of this is that after all of God’s provision and care and the repeated confirmation of his power—“they hardened their hearts against God until they were as hard as Pharaoh’s had been” (Robert Paul Martin).
Warning the Covenant Community
The Holy Spirit, speaking through David and the author of Hebrews, provides a negative example. By considering the hardened hearts of the rebellious wilderness generation, we are encouraged to do the opposite.
• Do not harden your hearts (8)! The wilderness generation had gradually, but consistently, hardened their hearts toward God. John Owen writes, “Many previous sins make way for the great sin of finally rejecting the voice or word of God.” They did not reach hardened unbelief all at once. Their sin incrementally numbed their hearts against any sense of conviction. If you desire to avoid the same fate as them, pray that the Holy Spirit will soften your heart and that God’s kindness might lead you to routine repentance (Rom 2:4).
• Do not put God to the test (9)! The wilderness generation tested God. All God’s miracles, over the course of forty years, never convinced them to trust Him. The Pharisees followed in their footsteps, testing and questioning Jesus’ authority (Mt 16:1; 22:18, 35). Rather, we are encouraged to be like the outsiders who expressed strong faith (The Roman Officer Mt 8:5-13, The woman with an issue of blood Mk 5:25-34, The woman with a demon oppressed daughter Mt 15:21-28). The faith of these outsiders stood in stark contrast to the hardened hearts of the Pharisees.
• Do not go astray in your hearts (10)! Their physical wandering was illustrative of their wandering hearts. Do you believe that He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world (1 Jn 4:4)?
• The result of their unbelief was a lack of rest (11, cf. 19). Initially, that was fulfilled by their not entering the promised land (Deut. 12:9). But, the spiritual reality that the promised land always pointed to was the eternal rest in the new heavens and new earth (11, cf. Heb 4:3; 11:10; Rev 21:1-8). Do you feel restless and anxious? There is a temporal aspect to consider as well. The temporal points to the eternal. But, the eternal reality ought to inform the temporal provoking present encouragement. If God has already secured your eternal rest through Christ, can he not also provide you with the temporal rest you need?
› Now, turning to his audience, the author applies the psalm’s warning directly to their hearts.
The Absence of Worship (12)
They should consider whether they have the same hearts as that wilderness generation. The call to perseverance often sounds like a warning. These are professing believers who received the word with instantaneous joy, but their rock hard foundation doesn’t allow for any root to form underground. As soon as their faith is tested, they “fall away” (Lk 8:13).
But, there is an encouragement in this verse. Did you notice how the author refers to his audience? He calls them “brothers”. He longs for them to persevere; even expects them to do so. But, he must warn them of the possibility of apostatizing from the faith and failing to reach the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22).
His warning does not mean he doubts their profession of faith. It simply admits that the stakes are high. Presumption would be foolish.
Neither does his warning admit that the elect can fall away. He is not saying genuine believers might fall away, he’s saying that their may be some among them who presently possess unbelieving hearts. Should they persist in their unbelief, they will not reach the rest that God promises to those who persevere. Moreover, as John Owen argues, “there is a degree of this unbelief which puts a soul absolutely into an irrecoverable condition in this world.”
The author is optimistic about their faith, but he does not have infallible instincts. He is not God, and it is not his position to definitively determine the genuineness of someone’s faith. So the exhortation to “take care” is an important one to make. In fact, later on he accuses them of becoming “dull of hearing” (Heb 5:11). Here, he applies it to every reader, “lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart.” He leaves no professor of Christ exempt from the warning.
We should not let “the perseverance of the saints” give us a presumptuous attitude about apostasy. Don’t embrace the promises of God while despising his warnings. Perseverance is required. And not all who commune with saints are genuine saints. Simon Magus was an example of someone who professed faith, received baptism, associated for a time with Philip’s ministry, all the while he was an imposter who sought to purchase the gift of God (Acts 8:9-24). The tares will grow among the wheat until the final harvest.
Psalm 95 had a purpose for the original audience, but “today” is meant to apply to each successive generation that might read or sing this psalm. This is a psalm with universal relevance for the people of God. There never will be a time when rebelling against God’s testing is a good thing. That will always lead to provoking God’s anger and wrath.
By the time David wrote Psalm 95, Israel had been in the promised land for several generations. But, the warning of not entering God’s rest remained relevant to them. The rest that they were at stake of forfeiting was not the temporal, but the eternal.
David’s “today” was equally applicable to the first century audience—as it is for us now. Take care! Don’t neglect your own soul. Do you have an evil, unbelieving heart? Take care that you do not belong to the household of God while sheltering a heart of unbelief.