Psalm 50

When It Is Not Enough

Has anyone ever criticized you for just being a "Sunday Christian?"

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

The words of the prophets, especially Hosea 6:3-6, must have burned the ears of the Temple priests from later generations. Cultic sacrifice was not enough. God desired justice. Psalm 50 stood out among the hymns as a response to the challenges the prophets leveled against the worship elites, for it assumed its prophetic thunder. Yet, the psalm defended sacrifice as a true means of keeping God's will.

The psalm can be divided into four parts: the arrival of YHWH as divine judge, reassurance to the people that sacrifices had worth, condemnation of the wicked, and a final warning.

1 The Mighty One, God, Yahweh, speaks,
and calls the earth from sunrise to sunset.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes, and does not keep silent.
A fire devours before him.
It is very stormy around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above,
to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 "Gather my saints together to me,
those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice."
6 The heavens shall declare his righteousness,
or God himself is judge.

The first section of Psalm 50 describes a theophany that originated at the Temple (Zion was the mount upon which the Temple was built, 50:2) The appearance of YHWH was in word (50:1: Yahweh speaks) and in signs of divine power (50:2: God shining forth and 50:3: signs of the Sinai revelation in storm and fire). The theophany was a judgment before the royal throne, with the heavens and the earth as witnesses (50:4, 6). He called to the faithful who followed the Law, and reminded them that his covenant was continually ratified by sacrifice, just as Moses ratified the covenant at Sinai (see Exodus 24:3-8).


7 "Hear, my people, and I will speak;
Israel, and I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
8 I don't rebuke you for your sacrifices.
Your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I have no need for a bull from your stall,
nor male goats from your pens.
10 For every animal of the forest is mine,
and the livestock on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the mountains.
The wild animals of the field are mine.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
13 Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble.
I will deliver you, and you will honor me."

50:8 stood as a direct answer to Hosea's utterance. YHWH did not reject sacrifice, but sacrifice must be placed in context. As Lord and Creator of all, God did not need sacrifice to satiate his needs, for only God can satisfy himself. Instead, the worshiper was to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice (notice this type of sacrifice was mentioned twice in 50:14 and 50:23). In other words, the proper attitude in worship was not abasement or rote. It was gratitude. The thankful heart was sincere and would certainly receive an answer to prayer.

16 But to the wicked God says,
"What right do you have to declare my statutes,
that you have taken my covenant on your lips,
17 since you hate instruction,
and throw my words behind you?
18 When you saw a thief, you consented with him,
and have participated with adulterers.
19 "You give your mouth to evil.
Your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your brother.
You slander your own mother's son.
21 You have done these things, and I kept silent.
You thought that I was just like you.
I will rebuke you, and accuse you in front of your eyes.

YHWH saved his venom for the "wicked." But, who are these wicked men? Some scholars speculate that the psalm was aimed squarely at the Temple hierarchy. They were the ones who proclaimed the Law and invoked the covenant by leading the act of sacrifice. Yet, if they were weak and allowed corrupt leaders to worship without sanction, these priests were just as guilty as the corrupt by their acquiescence. If the priests turned a blind eye to the thief or the adultery, they became thieves and adulterers. If the priests allowed lies and slander in their midst, they took on those sins. Just because God did not act in haste did not mean that his judgment would not arrive.

22 "Now consider this, you who forget God,
lest I tear you into pieces, and there be none to deliver.
23 Whoever offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifies me,
and prepares his way so that I will show God's salvation to him."

Judgment became a call to repentance. The wicked could convert; the weak priest could reform. The admonition to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice for the salvation of the people was expressed again (compare 50:14-15 with 50:22-23).

I once saw a sign in front of a church that read "Don't go to church (on a certain date). Instead, go serve someone in need." When I read the sign, I immediately thought of the words from Hosea. But, as Psalm 50 inferred, the call to worship and the call to mercy might not be mutually exclusive. Worship and social action can, and should, coexist. The question is "How?" How do we make the balance between the two poles of Christian living? How can we thank God for his goodness AND give others their due?

Reflect on your worship and your personal outreach. How do they reinforce each other? How can you improve upon each?