Venite is the Latin name for Psalm 95, which is appointed in the order for Morning Prayer before the daily portion of psalms. In the history of Anglican liturgical development, the text of this psalm has been an unfortunate casualty, a victim of the impulse to smooth over or eliminate challenging statements from Scripture. The psalm can be roughly divided into two parts: the first half is an invitation to worship the Lord who is the God over all creation; the second part is a stern warning not to be like the Hebrews who resisted the Lord’s direction in their wandering in the wilderness. The psalmist states in this second half,
Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness.
The psalmist goes on to speak of the ensuing punishment for this hardness of heart:
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation … unto whom I sware in my wrath, that they should not enter into my rest.
The psalm is alluding to the familiar narrative of the first generation of Hebrews liberated from slavery, who did not enter the Promised Land of rest because of their disobedience and hardness of heart. According to the Pentateuch, there were a number of occasions in which the people turned away from the Lord. Perhaps most infamously there was the construction of the golden calf by Aaron, as the Hebrews grew impatient for the return of Moses from Mt. Sinai. The people who had been commanded not to live by images worshiped this idol as the god that brought them out of slavery. Several times, the people grumbled and complained about their want of food or water. Each time, they appealed to their supposed plenty in Egypt, forgetting or denying that Egypt was the land of slavery. Finally, there was the occasion related in Numbers 14 where, after sending scouts into the Promised Land, the people refused to enter the land because of the rumors of unconquerable giants. The people were in this instance driven by fear and uncertainty rather than by trust and faith in the Lord.
These temptations are just as pernicious for us as they were for the Hebrews — St. Paul says as much of their story: “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 10:11). We too can live by images of what we think our life should be, seeking idols of worldly comforts or fleeting pleasures. We can act as if the commands of God are grievous to keep, forgetting that the service of God is true freedom. We can be driven by fear and uncertainty, rather than by trust and surrender.
For these reasons and more, the psalm speaks to our daily battles and struggles, and puts us in mind of the fact that we are not all that different from that generation of Hebrews. Unfortunately, for Episcopalians, the Venite is a place where in our line of prayer books there is a marked peculiarity. In the first American Book of Common Prayer (1796) and all the way through the 1928 BCP, the second half of the Venite — where we hear the exhortation to hear God’s voice and the threat of not entering his rest as the penalty for disobedience — was excised, and two less offensive verses from Psalm 96 were inserted. There was no textual reason for this change, except perhaps to remove verses that might make one uncomfortable. The reason given by Bishop White for the change in the 1796 prayer book was because “the latter part of the ‘Venite’ [is] limited to the condition of the Jews.” Wendell Berry would call this “historical self-righteousness,” i.e. that we would somehow be immune to the faults and shortcomings of our ancestors if we had lived in their time and place. I don’t have to stretch my mind very far to imagine constructing idols of my own imagining, or longing for the comforts of bondage, or being driven by fear rather than by trust.
Over time there have been efforts to fix this unwarranted and lamentable change: the 1928 Book of Common Prayer allowed for the substitution of the full text of Psalm 95 but still retained the altered form in the order for Morning Prayer. The 1979 prayer book took a varied approach: in Rite II, the offending verses have been distilled down to the gentler, “O that today you would hearken to his voice.” Rite I still retains the older altered American version of the Venite, but offers as an alternative the entire text of the psalm in traditional language, albeit found in an obscure corner of the prayer book (p. 146). (Other Anglican prayer books have dealt with the Venite in even more varied ways; the English book Common Prayer removes it entirely as a normative option in Morning Prayer.)
I think it would be advisable to take up this corner of the prayer book for regular use. If we need any further evidence that the second part of the Venite applies to us, we need look no further than the fact that the author of the letter to the Hebrews quotes these verses and applies them to Christians. After quoting those latter verses of Venite, the author states, “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). Believers are invited daily to enter the rest of God, not by entering into a material Promised Land of milk and honey, but, as the author of the letter states, by ceasing from their own works (Heb. 4:10). When one ceases from labor in Christ, it is not that all activity ceases, but that one’s time and one’s life is surrendered and offered to the Lord in service. In a very real sense, the Lord has never ceased speaking to us, and inviting us into his rest, calling us to let go of the ego’s heavy labor and travail and to take on the easy yoke of Christ. To say this psalm in its entirety, as I believe Cranmer intended, is to affirm the possibility of God’s redemption for today, with the implicit warning not to spurn the grace offered in this particular time with its particular trials and temptations. In the mercy and truth of God, the past and its sins and failures have been remitted, and we stand at the new day of God’s eternal now to hear once again the Lord’s voice and to accept his invitation to rest and trust.
The featured image is a detail of a stained glass in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons.