Psalm 95 is generally thought to have been one sung during the Feast of Tabernacles. Meribah and Massah are used in its body, a time in the wilderness when God taught His people a hard lesson. But this psalm starts just as you would expect a festival psalm to. Come let us sing, let us make a joyful noise.
Just as an interesting point, the Hebrew word translated “sing” in this passage is not a musical word. Ranan means to emit a stridulous sound (not exactly how I would want my singing described) or to shout, and is indeed translated shout, cry out, rejoice, joy, or triumph half the time in the KJV. And that makes that opening couplet much more parallel to the second one, “make a joyful noise to him.”
About that “joyful noise:” that particular Hebrew word means to mar, especially by breaking, to shout, or to split the ears. In our words we might say, “He burst my eardrums he was so loud.” Think about standing at a football stadium in the middle of the game, or beneath a jet engine as it revs for take-off. That’s the noise we are talking about. In fact, this word is translated “blow an alarm [with a trumpet]” a couple of times. As the second verse continues, we are to do this in psalms of praise so singing is involved, but the point of these two words is not the melody but the volume, caused by unabashed joy and celebration.
You find this often in the psalms. Noise and clamor seemed to be a part of the Jewish worship. Perhaps the psalmist, and God as his inspiration, had noticed. Right in the middle of the psalm, he throws what amounts to a cold bucket of water on all the festivities.
Their celebration of the feast had made them forget what the wandering was all about—and it wasn’t fun and games. An entire generation died because of their faithlessness. Toward the end of verse 7 he interrupts their self-congratulation that God loves them and cares for them with, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof.
Yes, God made a covenant that He would be with them and protect them, but only if they performed their half of the contract. Their ancestors did not. God goes on to say that He loathed that generation. That English word, I am told, is far too mild for the Hebrew idea. It means they disgusted Him, they nauseated Him, as in “I will spew you out of my mouth” nausea. Because of that, they did not receive the promised rest, a rest like God’s, a Sabbath rest not because you are tired, but because have finished the task (Heb 4:1-11).
Those people seemed to think, as the prophets testified, that all it took was loud worship to please God. The tendency is to judge our own worship as lacking because of this, too. We ask, “Why don’t we ever do that?” as if anything solemn and quiet is not sincere worship and certainly not acceptable to God. It is easy to think, as they did, that volume is all that matters.
“If you hear his voice” the psalmist says and then makes it clear that hearing involves reverence and obedience. In order to underscore this emphasis, the psalmist does not go back and say, “Okay, get on with the celebration now. I just wanted to interject a warning.” No, this is where he ends it. He wants this to be the last thing on their minds as they finish singing this psalm: “Therefore I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter into my rest.”
What started out as a jubilant service ends up with the wrath of God. I am sure their songs were not quite so ecstatic, their noise not quite so loud, for who can be carefree when he contemplates the wrath of the Almighty, the one the psalmist has already reminded us created everything and holds it in His hand?
Take away from me the noise of your songs; for I will not hear the melody of your viols. But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream, Amos 5:23,24.