Let Us Sing Unto the Lord: A Commentary on the Venite

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Augustinian monk-turned-Magisterial Reformer Martin Luther once called the Psalms a miniature Bible. It was remarked that a Christian could find his entire life experience on display in them. This has been found true throughout the ages, and it is one of the many reasons Archbishop Cranmer thought it fit that Christians should journey through the Psalter in its entirety once a month. The ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer allows this monthly sprint to become a two-month marathon, aiding those who look at the idea of reading 150 Psalms in 30 days with shock.

Traditionally, one psalm has been used daily during Morning Prayer (or Mattins, as it was often called). It has come down to us at the Venite, with the Latin name deriving from the first words of Psalm 95. This beautiful poetry starts the Christian’s morning with proper contemplation of God, joy in who he is, and full facement of our sinfulness. The thoughts below are tied to the updated translation of the Venite as it appears in the 2019 Prayer Book.

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The Call to Praise

O come, let us sing unto the LORD; * 
let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. 
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving * 
and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God * 
and a great King above all gods. 

This first section of the Venite begins with the Psalmist calling his audience to praise God from their innermost heart. The call is not simply to affirm things about God: the author desires his audience to rejoice, to be happy, to smile, and to bring their thanks to God. At first reading, it is easy to miss his rationale. He says to be happy because God is “a King above all gods,” which almost reads like he is speaking to theology nerds and calling on them to get excited over a new fun fact he has discovered. However, this is not his point, and that is plain from the author’s use of God’s covenant name.

This name has often been rendered in English as “Jehovah;” more accurately, it is Yahweh, the name that God chose for himself. It is revealed to Moses in the burning bush of Exodus 3, where God calls himself “He Who Is” (my rendering). He is the God who is eternally and always present with his people, the one who condescends to meet them in their need and keeps them from perishing. This is why the Psalmist calls on the people of God to praise him. Our God is the eternal One, the Triune Deity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are not praising the Great Clockwinder who turned us on and let us run; we praise and magnify the Almighty Lord who has covenanted with us and our children. He is for us.

The Call to See

In his hand are all the depths of the earth, * 
and the heights of the hills are his also. 
The sea is his, for he made it, * 
and his hands prepared the dry land. 
O come, let us worship and fall down, * 
and 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. 

The greatest of our God cannot be extolled, and the people of God are always in need of it. There is no depth of the earth that is not his, no height of mountains that he has not explored, no dragon of the ocean he has not tamed. God reigns over every inch of creation, claiming it for his own possession by his right as the Creator and Redeemer. What other attitude can we have other than worship? The proper response to God’s greatness is the bodily expression of worship: we must fall at his feet, and only then do we realize that we are lifted up and made his sheep.

The Venite had no qualms about ascribing to God authority over all creation. God was the Lord, not just of heaven, but of earth. St. Paul was just as clear: Jesus Christ has died to redeem not just his people but his earth (Rom. 8:19-23). We moderns are in danger of committing the old Gnostic heresy and disassociating from the physical world. We assume being “spiritual” means being focused on “non-physical” things like prayer.

It is imperative that we recapture the Biblical idea that the spiritual person is the one who is living in the realm of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that is as much concerned with my Bible-reading as he is with my time with my daughter and my balancing of my checkbook. God is the Lord over all creation, both in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). We dare not segregate his lordship and remove it from our daily lives.

The Call to Examine

Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts * 
as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness, 
When your fathers tested me, * 
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my works. 
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation and said, * 
“It is a people that err in their hearts, 
for they have not known my ways,” 
Of whom I swore in my wrath * 
that they should not enter into my rest. 

The tonal shift in this last section of the Venite can give the uneducated reader whiplash. We rapidly move from praising God to warning the listeners—presumably faithful Israelites and Christians—not to have hard hearts. The note has gone from a major to a minor chord, from praise to warning. The problem faced by most 21st-century Evangelicals is that we have imbibed a notion of eternal security that makes us look at this passage with one eye closed and the other reading the date on our decision card. 

There is a chasm between biblical assurance of one’s eternal state and presuming on that knowledge. We must affirm, with the Magisterial Reformers, that assurance of salvation is a glorious thing: we need not walk up the steps to a holy sight, full of anxious fear that we might be barred from the presence of God. We also affirm that no one, no matter how holy or faithful, can dare to presume their condition: who among us has perfect faith, perfect holiness, perfect love? Finally, we must never cease examining ourselves, returning to the perfect law of liberty to see ourselves for what we truly are: miserable sinners resting in a miraculous Savior. The Venite guides us through this Christian life that is a desert, both when we need water and when we rest in the River of Life.


Photo of the Sea of Galilee, Northern Israel, by RnDmS, courtesy of iiStock.

Published on

March 14, 2024

Author

James Hodges

James Hodges, of Ridgeway, VA, is a Kindergarten Teacher in the local public school system and teaches the Junior Church in his local congregation. He is husband to Anna and father to Lilabet.

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