As we move through the season of Lent, in my own congregation we are meeting for daily prayers where the focus is on being “in the wilderness”. It’s a theme that is inspired by the Gospel from the First Sunday in Lent, when Jesus is led “into the wilderness” where he was tested. It is a story about becoming prepared for what lies ahead; Jesus would enter, after that wilderness time of engagement with The Tester, into the public ministry which is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels, when “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).
As we journey through that (symbolic) wilderness during Lent, the scripture passages offered by the lectionary invite attention to key moments in the story of Israel (the Hebrew Scripture passages) and key encounters that Jesus had (the narratives from John’s Gospel), as well as a series of theological discussions from Paul (in his letter to the Romans).
And then we have the Psalms. This coming Sunday, Psalm 95 invites further reflection on God’s ways during this wilderness journey. It is a celebratory psalm, beginning “let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise … let us come into his presence with thanksgiving “ (Ps 95:1–2). The song continues in that same vein for a number of verses, celebrating God as “a great God” (v.3), creator of “the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains … the sea … and the dry land” (vv.4–5), honouring him worshipfully as “our maker” (v.6) and inferring that God is the shepherd of all his people (v.7).
The celebration of God’s creative capacities in the the middle section of this psalm draws on themes which are regularly sounded by the Psalmist. God is celebrated as the “maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 134:3), the one who created “all mortals” (Ps 89:47), indeed all creatures (Ps 104:24–30), even “the north and the south” (Ps 89:12), “sun and moon, shining stars and highest heavens” (Ps 148:3–5). Second Isaiah evokes God as “creator of the ends of the earth” (Is 40:28) whilst Third Isaiah looks to God’s new creation, “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17–18).
In Proverbs, Wisdom marks off each of the elements noted in the psalm (depths and heights, sea and dry land) when she declares that “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work … when there were no depths, I was brought forth … before the mountains had been shaped … when he assigned to the sea its limit … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Prov 8:22–30).
The depths of the earth were the place where sinful people went (Ps 63:9; Isa 14:15), following the lead of the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and “went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 5:4–5; Neh 9:11; Isa 63:11–13). There, in the depths, God’s anger burned (Deut 32:22). However, those banished to the depths were able to be brought back from the depths by God’s decree (Ps 68:22; 71:20; 86:13), so in one psalm we hear the cry, “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice” (Ps 130:1), and the prophet Micah affirms that God “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:19).
The heights are where the Lord God set the people once they had made their home in Israel, “atop the heights of the land … [where] he fed [them] with the produce of the land” (Deut 32:13; similarly, Isa 49:9; 58:14; Ezek 34:14). It is a place of security (2 Sam 22:34; Ps 18:33); indeed, “on the heights” is where Wisdom is to be found (Prov 8:2) and the Temple was built on the (relative) heights of Mount Zion, and so it is from “the holy height” that God looks down over the people (Ps 102:19).
However, for the prophet Jeremiah, “the bare heights” is the location for God’s judgement (Jer 12:12; 14:6). It is evident that, “on the heights”, the sinful people have “polluted the land” (Jer 3:2) and “perverted their way” (Jer 3:21). Accordingly, “a hot wind from me [comes] out of the bare heights in the desert … I speak in judgement against them” (Jer 4:11), for “on the bare heights the Lord has rejected and forsaken the generation that provoked his wrath” (Jer 7:29).
Just as the depths and the heights were parts of God’s good creation, so too the sea was integral to God’s creative works: “yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great” (Ps 104:25). Yet the sea was a threatening place for the people of Israel, accustomed to life on the land, planting grapevines and herding sheep in “the land of milk and honey”. The sea of reeds was the place of destruction for Egypt (Ps 114:1–8), although it was also the location of salvation for Israel, as is celebrated in David’s song of praise (2 Sam 22:1–4, repeated at Ps 18:6, 12–19).
The dangers of the sea which the Israelites escaped are detailed in Psalm 124, recalling the threat of floods sweeping them away, torrents rising over them, raging waters submerging them. That psalm concludes, with a sigh of relief, “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). In the sea lurks the great sea monster, Leviathan (Job 3:8; Ps 104:26) of whom Job muses, “who can confront it and be safe” (Job 41:11). Only the Lord is able to subdue Leviathan (Ps 74:14; Isa 27:1).
For sailors, the sea could be a place of great danger (Ps 107:23–31)—the story of Jonah attests to this (Jon 1:4–17), as does the final trip of Paul as he is taken as a prisoner to Rome (Acts 27:14–20). Yet the power of the roaring sea, as majestic as it is, pales into insignificance beside the majesty of the Lord on high (Ps 93:3–4).
Just as the sea was a place of danger, so the dry land was a place of safety—as evidenced by the way the story of crossing the sea of reeds is told (Exod 14:21; Neh 9:11; Ps 66:6) and when Jonah is vomited up onto dry land by the fish (Jon 2:10). However, when the Psalmist finds themselves in “a dry and weary land where there is no water”, a prayer is offered to God because “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you” (Ps 63:1). When linked with “the wilderness”, “the dry land” receives blessing from God, who will “make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isa 41:18) and “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isa 44:3).
This opening section of the psalm might be seen to be a reworking of the creation narrative, crafted by the priests in the Exile, which is placed at the beginning of the Torah to signal its fundamental importance (Gen 1:1–2:4A). The deep” is initially covered by darkness, when “the earth was a formless void” (v.2), before God creates light. A dome is placed “in the midst of the waters” in order to separate the waters (v.6), and then God decrees, “let the waters under the dome be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (v.9). These were the fundamental building blocks for the intricate and complex creation which then evolved.
After this celebration of creation—depths and heights, sea and dry land—there follows in Psalm 95 an exhortation directly to the people to “listen to his voice” (v.7b). The exhortation to listen is repeated often in Hebrew Scripture, in narratives (Exod 23:22; 1 Sam 15:1; 1 Ki 11:38), in works of wisdom (Job 37:2; Ps 81:11, 13; Prov 1:33; 8:32), and by various prophets (Isa 1:10; Jer 11:4; Ezek 40:4; Hos 4:1; 5:1; Joel 1:2; Amos 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 7:16; 8:4; Mic 1:2; 3:9; 6:1; Mal 2:1–3).
The fundamental instruction to Israel throughout the long speech attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy is, “hear, O Israel” (Deut 5:1; 6:3; 9:1; 13:11; 20:3; 27:9); even the heavens and the earth are commanded to “give ear … hear the words of my mouth” (Deut 32:1). The Preacher advises, “to draw near to listen [to God] is better than sacrifice offered by fools” (Eccles 5:1), and The Sage instructs, “listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future” (Prov 19:20).
Isaiah’s instruction to “listen to the teaching of our God” (Isa 1:10) is reiterated in both Second Isaiah (Isa 42:23; 46:3, 12; 48:12; 49:1; 51;1–7) and Third Isaiah (Isa 55:2–3; 66:6). Jeremiah is instructed to report God’s message to the people, “listen to my voice and do all that I command you” (Jer 11:4) recurs in later oracles (Jer 17:24–27; 26:1–6; 28:7).
The advice to Ezekiel, that “the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me” (Ezek 3:7) leads to God’s severe warning, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (Ezek 8:18; see also 13:19; 20:8; 20:39). Eventually, however, Ezekiel is commanded, “look closely and listen attentively … declare all that you see to the house of Israel” (Ezek 40:4)—which is precisely what he then does (Ezek 44:5–45:25; 46:1–18).
The instruction to listen is, of course, picked up by Jesus in his teachings (Mark 4:3, 9, 23; 7:14; 8:18; Matt 13:3, 16–17; 15:10; Luke 6:27; 8:8, 18, 21; 11:28; 13:32; 18:6; John 5:24; 8:47; 10:3, 16, 27; 14:24). At the Transfiguration, the disciples are instructed to “listen to him” (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Luke 9:35).
The psalm as a whole ends on a sombre note, with a warning of God’s testing of Israel (vv.8–10) and a declaration that God’s punishment will stand (v.11). The note of exuberant celebration that marked the opening verses has dimmed. Yet the overall mood of the psalm is one of joyful appreciation of God’s creative works. It is a good reminder for us, to celebrate God’s creation, as we move though our (metaphorical) wilderness journey during Lent.