It is widely believed songs like this one were employed during Israel’s yearly religious festivals. As originally composed, these lyrics called for the people – both those living in Jerusalem and those who journeyed back home for the holidays – to center their festivities around the goodness and glory of their divine King. In short, psalms like this one served as a call to worship. Their rallying cries speak as much to us today as they did long ago.
This song begins with an invitation to regale the Lord God with praise: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song” (verses 1-2). The expression of our worship towards God is to be unrestrained. Silence is not an option. No matter how we assess the sound of our voice, we are to sing and to shout to the Lord. The character of our chorus is to be marked by more than just some dutiful mouthing of words. Both joy and thanksgiving are to be evident and effusive in what we communicate.
To those who might question exactly what the big deal is – why God is worthy of such boisterous adoration, the Psalmist offers two related answers. The first reason for our unending exaltation is “For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods” (verse 3).
While the worship of other gods is acknowledged, the Lord God is heralded as being above and beyond any would-be pretenders to the throne.
The basis for this assertion immediately follows: “In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land” (verses 4-5). Whereas the false gods crafted by humanity are but manifestations of the works of creation, the Lord God is the Creator – the One who alone wields the supreme power to form, to shape, and to sustain all life. From the highest summits and even beyond the stars to the deepest valleys of the floors of the oceans, and by implication, everything in between, there is no sphere of creation that is outside of the Lord’s command.
Both before a polytheistic ancient world as well as in the midst of our own religiously pluralistic times, the psalmist provides something of a reality check. For those who live as a part of creation, there is no need to think about or worship any other god. Because there is no competition. There are no independent realms over which so-called rival gods can claim dominion. To entertain any such notion is nothing more than an empty but still dangerous distraction from what is true – from the One who is truth.
There is also a second reason we are called to give the Lord God all the glory: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (verses 6-7). For all His power, might, and majesty, the Lord is not only the great God who created all things; the Lord is our God. The psalmist invokes a repeated scriptural image that is exercised in framing how we perceive the Lord’s relationship with us. It’s a picture famously painted by David in perhaps the most famous track in the Book of Psalms – song #23. It is a representation Jesus captures in the Gospel of John as he speaks of those who look to and follow Him. The Lord is our Shepherd and we are His sheep.
There is, however, more here than a comforting visual emphasizing the Lord’s care – His nurturing and protection of us. For this is also covenantal language. We are not just random, wild sheep whom the Lord rounds up out of nowhere. God brings all humanity into being, and more specifically, calls into being the people of Israel and later, the Church, the Body of Christ.
Created in the image of God and redeemed by the Lord through a promise that is backed by repeated acts of salvation that ultimately lead to the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost, we belong to God. We are His sheep. We owe the Lord God our existence. Who else then, if not the Lord God, deserves our joyous praise and thanksgiving? Hence, the psalmist beckons us to kneel and to bow down. To lower oneself and to approach with one’s face pointed toward the ground are physical signs of reverent submission and trust.
At this point, the psalm suddenly, surprisingly, takes an unexpected turn. The call to worship abruptly becomes a prophetic word of warning spoken directly to us by the Lord God Himself. “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did” (verses 7-9). A touchstone event in the history of Israel is referenced to as a cautionary tale.
The Lord God had delivered the people from their bondage in Egypt. The Israelites witnessed through all the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea the Lord demonstrating His superiority over the supposed deities of Egypt. And yet on the road from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land, the Israelites grumbled and questioned the Lord God’s ability to provide and to protect them. Even as the people stood right on the threshold of entering their new homeland in Canaan, they still continued to doubt God – even going so far as to proclaim it would have been better if they had remained in Egypt!
The psalmist reminds us of the Lord’s response to the unrelenting disobedience of the people. “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.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest’” (verses 10-11). For forty years the people wandered in the wilderness until that whole unfaithful generation died. Their children were the ones who later possessed the land they would call home. But the land itself was not the point. It always pointed to something deeper – an abiding relationship with the Lord – resting in Him.
The closing admonition of this psalm remains as timely and powerful for us as we walk by faith through this broken world as it did to those pilgrims who regularly sojourned back to the Temple in Jerusalem. We are to remember and to learn from the lessons of the past – of those who tested and rebelled against God rather than gratefully trusting Him. They wandered into oblivion. We must not repeat their foolishness. If we become sheep that don’t take direction from our Shepherd, both our journey and our destination will be like theirs.
In the shock of this psalm’s finish, we can miss what is essential to avoiding this outcome: “Today, if only you would hear his voice…” (verse 8). The key word here in Hebrew is “shema” – to hear or to listen. It is the first word and also the adopted title of the foundational, daily prayer in Judaism – the whole of which can be found in the book of Deuteronomy (6:4-5). This word, this prayer, underscores the centerpiece of what it means to truly and rightly worship the Lord as our King – actually listening to God.
This strong counsel about listening that comes immediately after the verse about God being our Shepherd takes us again back to the Gospel of John. For when Jesus spoke of being our Good Shepherd, He also added that His sheep know His voice and follow Him. Jesus, in His own wilderness journey, modeled this posture of listening and following as Jesus refused to test God but instead heeded and relied solely upon the Father’s provision.
Praising the Lord must be more than just paying lip service. Contrary to the practice of many, worship is not the medium in which we get to feel good about ourselves or about what God has done for us. Worship is not a one-sided experience. The glory we seek to give to God is manifest in what we do as much as, if not more than what we say. Worship without obedience is not only meaningless, it is hypocritical. Obedience is impossible without worship. For instead of thanking God, we will be congratulating ourselves.
Gratitude expressed through listening isn’t hard when things are going the way we want. But when we don’t like the outcomes we are experiencing, grumbling easily overtakes our thanksgiving. Instead of attentively listening to the Lord’s direction, we persist in belligerently telling God how to do His job better. And when we stop listening to God, we stop listening to each other. As we turn on the Lord, we inevitably turn on each other.
On the other hand, true, right, and grateful worship leads to our attentiveness to the Lord’s commands – of living in relationship with Him, with ourselves, and with each other as He directs us – with love and forgiveness, justly and compassionately. This is why the psalmist emphasizes “today” in taking the time to listen to God’s voice with open ears and obedient hearts. We don’t have a moment to lose because listening to God can turn and direct our attention where it belongs and save us from unnecessary trouble and unwanted pain and suffering that come from going our own way. Listening to the Lord reduces our anxiety, brings us perspective as well as peace and thus reinforces our gratefulness. Simply put, the gratitude we express towards God should lead to our better listening to God which in turn will increase our reasons for being thankful.
Consider & Discuss | When is the last time you meditated on God’s greatness – both in terms of creation and more personally, in terms of the Lord’s presence and provision in your life? How do you express your gratitude to God? What might it look like not just to count your blessings but to verbalize those blessings – to give God the glory in terms of what you express to others?
Are you a good listener? If you are married, would your spouse agree? If you’re not married, would your parents or your friends agree? Are you regularly listening to God’s word and voice in your life? Or are you dominating the conversation when it comes to worshipping the Lord? How is your practice as a listener to God affecting your ability to listen well to others?
Prayer Focus | Gracious Lord, You are indeed a great God, the Creator of all that is good and true. Thank you that You are not only our King, but also our Good Shepherd – providing for and watching over us with Your unconditional love and abiding care. May our worship through what we say lead us to listen and to attend to Your voice, that we would follow where and to whom You lead us. Soften our hearts and protect us from wandering in our ingratitude and grumbling. Empower us to obey Your directions and to love and serve each other the way You have loved and served us in Jesus Christ. Amen.