The Two Sides of Thanksgiving: The Strange Story of the Venite (Psalm 95)

Thanksgiving Day (in the U.S.) is coming up, and our ministers are gearing up appropriate sermons (I hope they’re appropriate, at least) for the occasion.  So this is my contribution to raising the homiletical level, and perhaps it will edify you in the bargain.

In 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which transferred control of the Catholic Church in England from the Pope to the King, then Henry VIII.  This in effect nationalised the church.  After a rough start, the now Protestant Church of England promulgated and issued its new liturgical scheme enshrined in its Book of Common Prayer.  In 1549 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, a “three strikes and you’re out” statute which mandated life imprisonment for those who conducted Christian worship not in conformity with the Book of Common Prayer.  (For a chronicle of the reaction to all this, click here.)

Part of this liturgical system was Morning Prayer, and part of Morning Prayer was the recitation (musically or otherwise) of the Venite, based on Psalm 95.  (The word venite means “O come,” the opening words of the psalm.)  Below is reproduced two versions of this, on the left from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (Church of England) and on the right the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, U.S.)

1662 Book of Common Prayer (Church of England)

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 shew ourselves glad in him with Psalms.
For the Lord is a great God : and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth : and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and 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 the Lord 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 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.

1928 Book of Common Prayer (Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.)

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.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth; * and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and 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 the Lord our God; * and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; * let the whole earth stand in awe of him.
For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth; * and with righteousness to judge the world, and the people with his truth.

The English version uses Psalm 95 in its entirety, with its major shift in tone (more about that shortly.)  But the American version cuts away from Psalm 95 around v. 7 and picks up parts of Psalm 96.  This change dates from the beginning of the Episcopal Church, when it was established in the wake of the American Revolution.

Why was this change made?  An explanation of this comes here:

It’s (Episcopal Church’s) Prayer Book has omitted the prophetic oracle and admonition (verses 7b-11) since its first edition in 1789; and, sadly, it has been common to refer to the omitted second half as “the four distasteful verses.”

This condescending approach, originally inspired by principles of the Enlightenment, avoids the strong, biblical doctrine of God’s wrath against sin within the Bible, and seeks to make God to be always loving and only rarely displeased! Today most congregations in the West seem to omit these verses as not being suitable for “Christian worship.” This is usually because they are taken up with the prevailing, modern idea that worship must be “celebration,” sin, wrath and judgment are not common themes! This liberal, progressive religion has been accused-with justice-of being that religion, in which a God, without wrath, saves a people within sin, for a kingdom without judgment, by the ministry without the Cross.

There are two lessons to be learned from all this.

The first is that it’s dangerous to take a “cut and paste” approach to the Word of God.  That’s one reason why the Episcopal Church is in the mess it’s in, and its history over the last forty years speaks for itself.

The second comes by looking directly at Psalm 95.  The first part speaks of thankgiving, and celebration is an integral part of thankgiving.  The second, however, speaks of the flip side of thanksgiving, namely ingratitude.  We need to put the whole concept of thanksgiving into perspective by considering its opposite.

The message of the second part of Psalm 95 is simple and clear: ingratitude will kill you! As the psalm says, the Israelites had seen it all–the plagues, the first Passover, the parting of the Red Sea (for them,) the closing of the Red Sea (for the Egyptians,) the giving of the Law, manna, everything.  Yet they were still ungrateful and still whined about their condition.  From Marcion to Maher the God of the Old Testament has been criticised for being a God of judgement, but who wants to listen to a bunch of ingrates whine and compain all the time?  Do you?  It’s little wonder that they were barred from seeing the Promised Land.

And ingratitude isn’t a good plan for the ingrates either.  It’s a life where one feels constantly slighted, put upon and done wrong.  What kind of life is that, especially relative to God?  Or anyone else for that matter?  The stress you put on yourself is simply masochistic.  Like unforgiveness, ingratitude is deadly, and has many of the same effects.

The scent of death that ingratitude has can extend to the next life as well:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says– ‘If to-day you hear God’s voice, Harden not your hearts, as when Israel provoked me on the day when they tried my patience in the desert, Where your ancestors tried my forbearance, And saw my mighty deeds for forty years. Therefore I was sorely vexed with that generation, And I said– “Their hearts are always straying; They have never learned my ways”; While in my wrath I swore– “They shall never enter upon my Rest.”‘ Be careful, Brothers, that there is never found in any one of you a wicked and faithless heart, shown by his separating himself from the Living God. Rather encourage one another daily–while there is a ‘To-day’–to prevent any one among you from being hardened by the deceitfulness of Sin. For we now all share in the Christ, if indeed we retain, unshaken to the end, the confidence that we had at the first. To use the words of Scripture– ‘If to-day you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts, as when Israel provoked me.’ Who were they who heard God speak and yet provoked him? Were not they all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? And with whom was it that God was sorely vexed for forty years? Was not it with those who had sinned, and who fell dead in the desert? And who were they to whom God swore that they should not enter upon his rest, if not those who had proved faithless? We see, then, that they failed to enter upon it because of their want of faith.  (Hebrews 3:7-19)

Thanksgiving is more than something we do one day out of the year.  It’s a way of life.  And ultimately, it’s not only for God’s benefit (he will continue happy whether we’re thankful or not) but also for ours.  A thankful life, like a forgiving life, will be one of peace and contentment.  And that’s something to be thankful for.

One thought on “The Two Sides of Thanksgiving: The Strange Story of the Venite (Psalm 95)”

  1. Thanks or this interesting discussion. I had no idea 7-11 were intentionally omitted to make the Venite more palatable! Marty Haugen has a beautiful Venite “Come, Let us Sing” and I’m thankful he includes the line about not turning away like our forebears – I will use this from now on!

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