Do not harden your hearts… Psalm 95:8 (ESV)
A Tender, Soft Heart – The Stay Soft Series – Part 1
You’re too soft!
You’ve gone soft!
What are you, soft?
Apparently, softness has been something to sneer and jeer at, something to be avoided. Being tough, and hard, and strong has been seen as the opposite of soft and the more desirable goals for our personhood.
When I was twelve, a traveling minister, recognized as a prophet, came to our little country church to speak. Half way through the service, he prophesied over me. It was crazy, bizarre, and wonderful. I’m not sure what I think about that kind of thing anymore, but the words he used that night have stayed with me to this day. He said:
“You are a jewel in God’s crown.”
That felt nice. Then he said:
That felt like responsibility. And I didn’t get it. He repeated those words to me “You’re a jewel, and you’re to keep yourself” times ten.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed relishing the “jewel” part… But the “keep yourself” bit took me a while to figure out.
I’ve finally come to the (open) conclusion that ‘keeping yourself’ is about staying soft. Yep, people may sneer and jeer at it, but they do so from a hard and callous place.
Psalm 95 begins with praise and a hopeful declaration about the greatness of God, and ends with what sounds like an admonition:
“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” Therefore I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter my rest.” (Ps 95:8-11 ESV).
You can read about what happened at Meribah and Massah in Ex 17, Deut 33, and Num 20. Respectively, the names mean quarreling and testing, which the Israelites did plenty of at those two sites. As the Psalmist wrote, they represented places of hard heartedness.
Now, this isn’t the series for me to get into how ancient writers viewed God and used language, like the Psalmist has here, to try and interpret what was happening in their times through a spiritual lens. Suffice to say that perhaps those were God’s actual words, or perhaps they were an interpretation of how they thought God moved in the world; how they read the times and seasons and movements of life through the eyes of belief.
Either way, the message seems to be clear: hard heartedness keeps you from rest. And not just any rest. The connections this Psalm has with Genesis 2, and Hebrews 3 and 4, suggest that it’s what’s called “new creation rest.” Just like God rested on the seventh day, there’s a rest that we can enter into that perpetuates the same creative force that brought the world into existence, into our lives.
Rabbi A.J. Heschel put it like this:
“Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self… The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence. In its atmosphere, a discipline is a reminder of adjacency to eternity.” (1.)
For the ancient Hebrews, Eternity didn’t represent heaven as a place we go when we die, but the place where God dwells. That’s why the new testament is filled with “heaven on earth” language. It’s here and now.
It’s not that God forbids those with a hard heart from entering that rest. Hardness of heart keeps one from being able to see it in the first place. It keeps one from being able to “dominate the self” as Heschel so aptly critiqued.
Only those with a tender, soft heart will find it.
Written by Lizzy Milani
1). Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. Noonday Press.