Psalm 95 and Christian Hermeneutics Print
Written by Timothy Edwards   
Monday, 06 December 2010 08:47

Psalm 95, familiar to all Anglicans from its inclusion in the liturgy for Morning Prayer, is a call to worship that ends with a stern warning:

Today, if you will hear his voice,
Do not harden your hearts, as in the provocation,
And as in the day of temptation in the wilderness,
When your fathers tempted me 
Proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation
And said, It is a people that do err in their hearts,
For they have not known my ways.
Unto whom I sware in my wrath,
That they should not enter into my rest.1

The reference to the wilderness generation is explicit, yet the declaration 'they should not enter into my rest' occurs nowhere in the Exodus narrative. Yet the reference to 'my rest' (מנוחתי) has almost universally been seen as a reference to the land, and more specifically Jerusalem, so Rashi:2

My rest: to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem which I called 'rest', as it says, This is my rest forever (Psalm 132:14).

The Psalmist appears to be setting forth the failure of the wilderness generation as an example and warning to others NOT to follow.

This is exactly where the author to Hebrews appears to take us at the end of chapter 3, where he quotes the warning at the end of the psalm and then asks:

For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.3

Here the author takes us through a lesson in 'questions to ask' when exegeting a text, yet his final statement leaves the reader hanging on the most important question: where were they unable to enter? The answer is left, temporarily, for the reader to provide the answer, and it seems in light of the questions asked, that he wants the reader to think 'land'. The next verse, however, immediately dispels that notion with the surprising statement:

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should         seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they         heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.

The promise of entering God's rest that was denied the wilderness generation still stands for the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. And thus the warning still stands too - they could miss out! But miss out on what? The epistle continues:

For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, "As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest,'" although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works." And again in this passage he said, "They shall not enter my rest."

The rest of Psalm 95 is the same rest of Genesis 2:2, God's rest on the seventh day of creation week. So the wilderness generation rebelled against God and as a result did not enter the rest of God. Rest does not mean land! Rest means 'Sabbath rest' (see 4:9) a rest from 'works', just as God rested from his 'work'. These first century Jewish believers would have understood exactly what the 'sabbath rest' for the people of God was: Life in the new heavens and the new earth, described in Jewish words as 'the day when all will be Sabbath'. This interpretation of Psalm 95 is strikingly similar to Rabbi Akiva's, found in Tosephta Sanhedrin 13:4

The wilderness generation have no share in the world to come and they will not live in the world to come as it says, in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die (Numbers 14:35). They shall come to a full end: in this world, and there they shall die: in the world to come. And it says, unto whom I swore they shall not enter my rest (Psalm 95:11), the words of Rabbi Akiva.

The rest of Psalm 95 is talking about the rest of the world to come. For both the author to the Hebrews and Rabbi Akiva the rebellion of the wilderness was far more serious and with far worse consequences than wandering in the wilderness for 40 years and not entering the land!

It is important to note here, before going any further that Hebrews is not using a land typology to reach this conclusion. He is interpreting rest as something completely different through a comparison with Genesis 2:2. He emphasizes this through highlighting the word 'today' and the Davidic authorship of the Psalm:

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, "Today," saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Joshua didn't give them rest - the psalm is not talking about the land. Therefore the promise remained for those in David's day as well as the first century and still remains today. Our response therefore is to 'labour to enter into that [sabbath] rest.'5

More could be said on the content of the message, but we want to emphasize the exegetical principles behind this exposition of the Psalm. The key to understanding the warning was found in the Greek translation of Genesis 2:2, where the word 'rest' is the same as in the Greek translation of 'rest' in Psalm 95:11. Why use Genesis 2:2 and not Psalm 132:14 as Rashi? Because David, who wrote the Psalm used the word 'today' and so Joshua who led them into the land cannot possibly have given them the 'rest' spoken of. Although the 'plain sense' appears to lead you to one conclusion (as Hebrews 3:16-19 pretended to do) that conclusion would be wrong. Thus Genesis 2:2 proves to be the key to solve the problem.

Once that 'problem' is solved we are then free to apply this principle to another passage: Ruth 1:9 and 3:1 where marriage is described as 'rest.'6 Here, then, through the lens of Hebrews 4, Sabbath rest and marriage become two sides of the same coin, pointing us to our future hope - united to Christ and enjoying the New Heavens and Earth. Marriage is a symbol of Sabbath rest and Sabbath rest points to marriage and both lead us to Christ.7 This end-time vision follows the creation week, which culminates in the marriage of Adam and Eve (Christ and the Church) and Sabbath rest. Hebrews 3 and 4 have provided us with the key to read Genesis, Ruth and Psalms, just as Origen described in Philocalia 2:3:

When about to begin our interpretation of the psalms, let us put forward first the gracious tradition handed over to us by the Hebrew that speaks in general terms about the entire divine scripture. For he declared that the whole "divinely inspired scripture", because of its lack of clarity, is like many locked rooms in a single house. But each room has a key lying next to it that does not correspond to it. And the keys have been scattered  around the rooms, in such a way that none of them fits the room before which it lies. he says that the greatest task is to find the keys and fit them to the rooms which they are able to open... For indeed I think that the apostle Paul, too, suggested such an approach to the comprehension of the divine words of scripture when he said, "Which things we speak not in teaching words of human wisdom, but in teaching words of the spirit, interpreting spiritual things with spiritual things."8

In other words, to attempt to read Psalm 95 separate from the book of Hebrews and Genesis and Ruth would be foolishness, like trying to describe a room from the outside because you haven't got the key to unlock the door. Some may believe your convincing description backed up by tenure and a long list of published articles, but those who have seen inside won't have a word of it!


1. Quoted from the Coverdale version of the Psalter as found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer
2. Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040 – 1105) a medieval Jewish grammarian and commentator.
3. Words taken from the Psalm are highlighted in italics.
4. The Tosephta was redacted in the 3rd century AD and is a supplementary body of laws additional to the Mishnah.  
5. A reality that every observant Jewish home would (and still does) have a weekly reminder as they labour to prepare for the weekly Sabbath.
6. מנוח - As well as protection, as Ruth's sheltering under Boaz's 'wings' simply pictured the greater reality of her sheltering under the LORD's wings (c.f., Ruth 2:12 and 3:9).
7. Interestingly every Friday night Jews recite the Song of Songs as they prepare to welcome in the Sabbath, as well  as reading it publicly during the feast of Passover - the great festival of salvation and redemption.
8. Quoted in M. Mitchell, Paul, The Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (Cambridge University press: Cambridge, 2010) p.57.

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Last Updated on Monday, 06 December 2010 09:37