Throughout the New Testament, we are given cautions and warnings. We are told repeatedly that we are to take our covenant lessons from what happened to our older brothers, the Jews. The things written down in Scripture were written for our edification, as examples to us, which means that we need to learn to read the narrative right. We are never told that the Jews could fall away, but that Christians cannot. So we should know that these warnings apply to us—not as though the decree of God’s election could be altered—but that the warnings about our place in the visible covenant apply to us because our position there is exactly that of the Jews. This will become plainer as we go on. We take this psalm as from David—although the psalm itself does not attribute it to David, that connection is made later in the book of Hebrews (4:7).
To repeat, the truly regenerate, the elect of God, can never fall away. But members of the visible church can and do fall away.
“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth: The strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: And his hands formed the dry land. O come, let us worship and bow down: Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Psalm 95).
Summary of the Text:
Biblical faith is a corporate affair. The godly looks around himself, and says to others, “Come” (v. 1). We need many more to gather in order to make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. We come before His presence with thanksgiving, and the fact of a joyful noise is mentioned again (v. 2). We make that joyful noise with psalms. Why do we do this? Because the Lord is a great God, a king above all the other gods (v. 3). The deeps are in His hand. The wealth of the deepest mines are His (v. 4). He fashioned the oceans, and His were the hands that formed the dry land (v. 5). So the great invitation is issued again. Come. Let us kneel. Worship is corporate. Let us worship. Let us bow down. Let us kneel before our Maker (v. 6). He is our God. We are the people of His pasture. We are the sheep in His flock (v. 7).
Now up through the first half of v. 7, the voice is that of one of the Lord’s people, inviting others of the Lord’s people to gather together in worship. It is a psalm of sheep exhorting sheep. In the turn from v. 7 to v. 8, we see that the voice is now becomes the voice of the Shepherd. Do not harden your heart as you did before (v. 8), as your fathers did before you (v. 9). There is ambiguity in v. 10. Did they grieve the Lord for forty years, or did they wander for forty years because they had grieved Him? I take it as the latter, for reasons to be explained in a moment. These people err in their hearts (v. 10), and as a consequence God swore in His wrath that they would not enter His rest (v. 11).
These Ten Times:
As Israel was fresh out of Egypt, they tempted the Lord because of a lack of water, and the place where they did this had two different names given to it—Massah and Meribah. “And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Ex. 17:7). “Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah” (Deut. 6:16; cf. 33:8). Despite their provocation of Him in this, the Lord did not relegate them to a generation spent in the wilderness yet. That came about a year later, after the episode of the return of the unbelieving spies.
“Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it” (Num. 14:22–23).
Because of “these ten times” when they tested the Lord, all within the first year of their time in the wilderness, the Lord sealed them up in that wilderness for forty years.
Entering His Rest:
As this psalm is interpreted and applied by Paul in Hebrews, there are multiple layers to the meaning of rest. In the psalm itself, the Lord was angry with that generation, and swore that they would not enter Canaan-rest (Ps. 95:11). There is the antitype of this, in the wilderness generation of Christians preparing to invade the world with the gospel, in what might be called the Great Commission rest (Heb. 3:14). Then there is personal salvation rest (Heb. 4:1-3). Then we have what can be called our corporate weekly-foretaste rest (Heb. 4:9-10). And last, we have what I take as a final heavenly rest (Heb. 4:11).
For the one who believes, all of these should be considered our promised possession. God gave Canaan to Israel. God gave the world to the church. God gives forgiveness of sin to the repentant sinner. God gives us a regular reminder, every seven days, that everything is accomplished through His work. And finally God gives us resurrection rest, in the new day, in the final day, in the eighth day. And all of it is the grace of God, which means that all of it is rest—not works, lest any man should boast.
So as we consider these things, remember that God’ elect cannot be taken from His hand. Your regeneration is not reversible. No one can successfully thwart the work of salvation that God has once begun in a sinner’s heart. When it comes to the final salvation of those He has chosen before the foundation of the world, God is not interruptible.
But at the same time, something can be thwarted. Apostasy is a real sin, committed by real people. It is not a sin that can be committed by any of God’s decretally elect, but it can be committed by individuals who are covenantally connected to Christ. And these people are addressed in the pages of the New Testament. It is not as though they are non-Christians in every sense of the word. Remember that there are Jews, and also that there are true Jews, those who are such inwardly, by the Spirit, in the heart (Rom. 2:28-29). This distinction does not disappear in the new covenant. There are baptized Christians who are going to fall away. Are they true Christians, regenerate Christians, chosen-to-holiness-before-the-foundation-of-the-world Christians? Of course not, and let’s not be silly.
The New Testament Scriptures never say anything like this: In the Old Testament it was possible to fall away from the covenant, but now in the new covenant this is impossible. Not at all.
“Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29).
Jesus is the vine, and branches can be cut out of Him (John 15:1-8). Christ is the root of the Abrahamic tree, and Paul tells Christians at Rome that they can be cut out of it just as the unbelieving Jews had been (Rom. 11: 18-24), and for the same reasons. And what kind of things were written down for our example (1 Cor. 10:6)?
So the Christ in whom we must believe has always been a present Christ. The Christ in whom we do believe is a Christ who is near to His people, and has always been near to His people. And when this is proclaimed, and the vicarious blood sacrifice that He offered to His Father is preached, there is only one reasonable response to it all. Come, let kneel before the Lord our Maker.