For nearly forty years now the Church of God community has been wracked by warfare and division and by a difficulty in learning judgment and discerning, which is necessary for the spiritual development that allows one to be a qualified king and priest in the kingdom of God and a fit example in this life of God’s way. Additionally there has been the constant threat of rebellious attitudes among leaders wishing to divide the people of God to establish a following for themselves and a platform for their own selfish ambitions for power and position. This lamentable state of affairs has led me to reflect on another time when a rebellious group of people unable or unwilling to take personal responsibility was led by God from slavery in Egypt to the promised land–the wilderness years of the congregation of Israel. It is in the light of this comparison between the wilderness years of the Church of God these almost 40 years and the wilderness years of Israel that I wish to examine Psalm 95.
The Context of God’s Rest In Hebrews 3 and 4
First, though, before looking directly at Psalm 95, I would like to examine the way in which this psalm is repeatedly cited in Hebrews 3 and 4, which gives its context with regards to its application to the current situation of Church of God. The author of Hebrews makes a very subtle point, several of them, in fact, with regards to the symbolism of the Sabbath rest and the rest of the Promised land, and with the judgment that falls on the rebellious for their unbelief. The author then ties in this wrath of God and His rest with the accountability we all possess towards our God, who will judge us all.
Let us therefore look at Hebrews 3:7-19, which reads: “Therefore, as the Holy spirit says, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ” Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.”
Before we examine the rest of this passage, let us see what the author of Hebrews is stating by his insistent citation of Pslam 95 and his urgent application of this psalm to believers in his present day, some 1500 years after the Exodus and some 500-1000 years after Psalm 95 was written (since the psalm is anonymous it is hard to know exactly when it was written, since we do not know by whom it was written). For one, the author of Hebrews directly applies the psalm to the believers of his time, holding them accountable to the same standard of belief in God that the mixed multitude in the wilderness was found wanting in. Then, he tells the brethren of his audience to exhort each other daily to repent and keep the faith, lest any of them fall prey to the ‘deceitfulness of sin’ and rebel against God. To rebel is to have a lack of belief and faith, and far from a light matter one’s eternal destiny could be at stake. These were serious matters and the author of Hebrews did not take them lightly, connecting obedience and faith with survival and entering into the rest of God after a lifetime of faith, which we cannot abandon before the end.
Hebrews 4 continues to elaborate on this Psalm and on the concept of rest, and so let us look at Hebrews 4:1-13 to see this context further: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said, “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David [Psalms], “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you shall hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Let us note the further elaboration of the rest. Both the Sabbath rest and the rest of the Promised Land were shadows (or symbols) of the greater rest of God’s kingdom that all of us who believe are to enter into. To do so we must have faith in God (rather than unbelief, as did the rebellious children of Israel). The Sabbath remains for believers to keep because it points to a future rest in God’s kingdom. The shadow remains valid as it points to its ultimate fulfillment. The congregation of Israel in the wilderness, thanks to their constant rebellion, showed themselves unworthy of entering the rest of the promised land, but many of those rebels may have blotted themselves out of the book of life through their constant rebellion against God and their constant refusal to accept personal responsibility, but rather to long for the pleasures of slavery in Egypt rather than the sober acceptance of the duties of freedom and liberty. Let us not think ourselves that we are somehow better than they, for the author of Hebrews tells believers of Christ this warning, people like ourselves with hard hearts and a lack of spiritual discernment. For if we tell ourselves, “we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (1 Peter 2:9-10), then let us soberly remember that it was said of that rebellious and stiff-necked generation of Israel that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” a generation that tested God for forty years in the wilderness and showed themselves unworthy of entering God’s rest.
The Application of Psalm 95 To The Church of God
Let us now turn to Psalm 95 and examine it in the context of the Church of God these last forty or so years. Let us not forget that just as the congregation of Israel wandered in the wilderness, stiff-necked, rebellious, and unwilling to spiritually mature in the wilderness, so we have wandered in the spiritual wilderness following after men and warming chairs and hardening our hearts to the way of God. Psalm 95 does not only apply to the rebellious Israelites whose disobedient corpses filled the wilderness, it applies to us today as well.
Psalm 95:1-7 reads as follows: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh 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.”
As this is the pleasant first half of this psalm, let us reflect on what Psalm 95 says to the Church of God. First, we are to come before God in praise for His salvation and His deliverance, and not in political machinations or in assaults upon His own control, as if we had to take matters into our own hands (though God does call on us to take responsibility of ourselves). God made all, God knows all, and God has control over all things–so there is nothing outside of His competence to deal with. Often He simply seeks to allow things to test what is inside the hearts of men. Likewise, we are all sheep in the pasture of our God, and Jesus Christ is our good shepherd. This fact is often forgotten (or at least, not understood) by false hirelings and wolves.
The second half of Psalm 95, verses eight through eleven, which we have already read above, follows on the heels of the previous command to worship and praise God and remember that we are the sheep of His pasture: “Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ”
Let us now examine this part of the passage in the light of the experience of the Church of God in the last 40 years in the wilderness. The warning is for today–not for the time of the wilderness alone. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:11-12, “Now all these things happened to them [the rebellious congregation of Israel in the wilderness] as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, let him who things he stands take heed lest he fall.” This includes me and everyone reading this blog confident that they stand in the right. We all ought to learn that out of some two and a half million who left Egypt with a high hand only two of them who were over 20 years of age entered the promised land forty years later, Joshua and Caleb. How many people among the rest were sure they were right with God and were found wanting in the wilderness? Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Hur were the recognized leaders of Israel when they left Egypt, and none of them survived to enter the Holy Land. Hur does not even appear to have survived past the golden calf incident (at least, he is not mentioned after that in the Bible).
How many of the leaders of the early 1970’s are still strong in the faith, and how many have fallen by the wayside either by seeking their own personal followings or rebelling against God, or how many have died in the natural course of time? For forty years we have been circling ourselves like a dog chasing its tail, and what do we have to show for it–decades of broken families, hundreds (if not thousands, by this point) of churches that all believe more or less the same thing but most of whom accuse the others of being Laodicean or liberal, and most of whom who have nearly identical prophetic speculations and nearly identical one-man ruling systems but none of whom can respect the authority of anyone else.
How many little churches are there that are duplicating efforts or that are filled with members waiting passively for God to take them off to the place of safety and make them kings and priests when they have done nothing to prepare themselves for the solemn duties of responsibility by setting an example to the world around them of obeying God in this life? I could speak for pages about the wicked leaders of many of these churches of God, and the sorts of activities they have been involved in, but let us focus on the ordinary members. How many of this congregation are judging proper judgment and showing the discernment to judge the matters of this life in preparation for judging more important matters in the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:3-4)?
How many people, members and ministers, have boasted about their complete understanding of God’s law and complete obedience to it but do not have the slightest knowledge at all about the obligations believers have to support those struggling against sin , or to put the Bible into practice in their business lives ? I do not speak only of others, but also of myself. There is a lot we simply do not understand and have not even begun to examine. That is true of all of us. We all fall short. We are all stubborn and stiff-necked and rebellious. As Paul says in Romans 3:10-12, quoting Psalm 14:1-3: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.” This is true of all of us, not merely others. We are all subject to condemnation–we have all rebelled in the wilderness, all grumbled at God, though we saw His deeds, all murmured in our hearts, all turned aside, all hardened our hearts.
Let us therefore all repent to God and seek His mercy, for Paul says again in Romans 7-8, quoting Psalm 32:1-2, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” For if our days in the wilderness are near a close, and we approach His rest, then let us not at this late hour disqualify ourselves with rebellion, and not harden our hearts. Let us not try God in the wilderness and thus cause God to curse us as He cursed the Israelites for their disobedience, though He sought to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Let us hear His voice, so he does not swear in his wrath that we shall not enter His rest. For truly we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand–let us not go astray in our hearts and be ignorant of His ways, for our own sakes. For there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.