“Hear me today; listen to me tomorrow.” My high school Bible teacher during my junior and senior years (yes, I went to a Christian school) used this phrase often. Jesus said something similar: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Both of these sayings encourage careful listening, with ears and heart. It’s one thing to hear something, another to really listen, to comprehend, and to engage. It’s one thing to have ears, quite another to use them to listen.
In Psalm 95 there is a call to hear, to listen: “Today, if you hear his voice” (v 7c). It’s framed between majestic calls to joyful, grateful, and humble worship (vv 1-7b) and a warning not to complain in the middle of the wilderness (vv 8-11). If you’re familiar with this psalm it’s probably with the first seven verses. There is even an old song based on vv 6-7.
The twin summons to come before the Lord with praise and worship (vv 1-2 and v 6) resound with beauty. The complimentary sections in vv 3-5 and v 7 point toward the reasons for our praise. In the former verses the psalmist considers the expansive greatness of God above all gods and above all realms of creation: valleys and mountains, sea and land—all parts of creation are in the sovereign hand of God. In the latter verse the reason is more personal: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
But the more troubling part of the psalm is the final section (vv 8-10). We observe a foreboding shift in tense, person, and mood in the transition from v 7 to v 8. The psalmist’s voice falls silent; the Lord’s voice speaks. The change becomes explicit in v 9, when we learn that God has assumed control, speaking directly to his people. Hardly a breath after the psalmist cries out: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” (v 7c, NRSV) we find God speaking—are we listening?
The second division in the psalm reminds the hearers of the wilderness wanderings. The Israelites, fresh out of Egypt, delivered from four centuries of slavery, complain and groan in the desert for lack of good food and enough water (and if they were fully honest, probably the comforts of beings slaves, ironic as that sounds). The result? They failed to enter God’s rest—not a reference simply to the promised land of Canaan—but to the ultimate promised land of shalom, peace and contentment, harmony and happiness, in fellowship and union with God, humanity, and creation.
What the psalmist has done is put to us a choice. Will we praise God with joy and thanksgiving, with reverence and humility? Will we praise him even in the wilderness seasons of life? Or will we groan and complain? The result will either be that we enter his rest or wander until we die. And the key to it all is to listen: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” God has always been speaking. He speaks in the palace and in the poor house. He speaks in Canaan and in Egypt. He speaks in the promised land and in the waste land. The question is, “Are you listening?”
When we’re in the wilderness we feel alone and afraid, uncomfortable and uncertain. It’s hard to participate in the worship of vv 1-7 when we find ourselves in Meribah and Massah (these place references in v 8 refer respectively to places of strife and temptation, as reflected in the stories following the exodus). The options are complaining and thanksgiving. If you choose to complain, you won’t hear God speaking over the chatter of your own wasted words. If you choose to give thanks, you will hear that God indeed is still speaking, that he’s still giving gifts even in the desert, albeit gifts that come with that territory. The issue has never been with God ceasing to speak or give or save, but with us ceasing to listen, receive, and give thanks.
“O that today you would listen to his voice!”