John T. Willis

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

External Acts of Religion versus Godly Living--Psalm 50

The composer of Psalm 50 wrote this poem in Jerusalem or Zion (see Psalm 50:2). He openly declares that at the Jerusalem temple, worshippers regularly offer sacrifices to Yahweh commanded in the Law of Moses (Psalm 50:8-9). These "devoted worshippers" assume that religion is all about practicing correctly and regularly external acts of religion, and has nothing to do with one's attitude and treatment of other human beings (Psalm 50:18-20). At this point, Yahweh watches silently from his heavenly throne to observe what these worshippers are doing (Psalm 50:21). Through God's message, the composer of Psalm 50 strongly opposes this view of religion. This is the same message as the prophets (Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:4-6; Isaiah 1:10-20; Micah 6:1-8; Jeremiah 7:1-26). Psalm 50 falls into three paragraphs or stanzas.

1. The Poet begins by announcing that Yahweh can no longer be silent, and that Yahweh comes to judge his people who trust in mere external acts of religion. Psalm 50:1-6.
     a. The psalmist declares that Yahweh is "the Mighty One." Yahweh speaks and summons the whole earth, not merely Israel or Canaan, but the whole earth. This extends from the rising to the setting of the sun. The encompasses all of planet earth. Speakers and composers of the Hebrew Bible consistently think of Yahweh as being the universal God, not a limited god like gods in the surrounding nations. 50:1.
    b. Yahweh "shines forth" from Zion, "the perfection of beauty." Such beauty does not come from itself, but comes from the splendor which Yahweh bestows or gives [see the similar language describing Jerusalem or Zion in Ezekiel 16:14]. 50:2.
    c. Yahweh "our God" comes forth and DOES NOT KEEP SILENCE. In fact, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. This is typical language of Yahweh's appearance [theophany]--see Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4-5; Amos 1:2; Micah 6:1-2; Habakkuk 3:3-15; Psalm 18:7-15 [Heb. 18:8-16]=2 Samuel 22:8-16. 50:3.
    d. Yahweh calls to the heavens above and the earth below to be his witnesses as he presents his lawsuit or his court case against his sinful people. This is common language of a covenant lawsuit, as in Deuteronomy 32:1; Isaiah 1:2; Micah 1:2; 6:1-2. 50:4.
    e. Yahweh summons his hearers:
         "Gather to me my faithful ones,
                who made a COVENANT with me by SACRIFICE."
All the people who were present when God made his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses had died, but the heavens and the earth were there, and so God could appeal to them to support the truthfulness of his position in this lawsuit. It is true that the covenant was sealed by sacrifice, but sacrifices were not the central focus of the covenant. Rather, Yahweh's covenant with his people was an intimate, daily, personal relationship with God from the heart--see Jeremiah 31:31-34. Thus, the heavens declare Yahweh's righteousness because Yahweh himself is judge. Yahweh "judges" to make a clear distinction between those who were REALLY faithful to the covenant and those who ONLY PROFESSED to be faithful. 50:5-6.

2. Yahweh declares that his people cannot BRIBE him with their SACRIFICES. Psalm 50:7-15.
     a. Yahweh himself speaks through the psalmist of Psalm 50. He summons his hearers:
          "Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
                O Israel, I will testify against you.
                I am God, your God."
Yahweh emphasizes the close relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people. He calls them "MY people," and calls himself "YOUR God." In this spiritual marital relationship. Yahweh belongs to Israel and Israel belongs to Yahweh. Thus, the first and most fundamental aspect of the covenant is God's personal involvement in the daily lives of his people. 50:7.
    b. Yahweh strongly AFFIRMS that HE does not rebuke or condemn his people for bringing their sacrifices and burnt offerings to worship him. Yahweh HIMSELF commanded them to do this. Sacrifice was the natural expression of the people's love for Yahweh, who delivered them out of Egypt and guided them in the wilderness (Exodus 20:1-3). 50:8.
    c. Instead, Yahweh rebukes his people for their misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice, and for the goals they sought to accomplish in offering sacrifices. They assumed that when they offered God an animal sacrifice, they were obligating him to bless their lives because they were denying themselves to give him something. Yahweh responds clearly that they could not give him anything because everything is already his, and the only reason they had it was that he gave it to them. Repeatedly he says:
       Every wild beast of the forest IS MINE (50:10).
       I know all the birds of the air,
            and all that moves in the field IS MINE (50:11).
       The world and all that is in it IS MINE (50:12).
When human beings do anything to manipulate God or to control God, they make themselves the center of religion rather than God. 50:9-11.
   d. Pagan worshippers believed that their gods ate the blood and meat of their sacrifices [as in the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic], and in this way they keep their gods alive by continually offering sacrifices for them. But our God, the true and living God, is completely independent of all things; in fact, everything is dependent on him. Thus God says:
       "If I were hungry, I would not tell you" (50:12).
       "Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
              or drink the blood of goats?" (50:13).
Of course not!!! What Yahweh desires from all people is to call on [pray to] Yahweh in times of trouble so that he might deliver them, and in this way they will glorify him. What God really wants from all people is humble, grateful recognition that he they are totally dependent on Yahweh, which is expressed most graphically and powerfully when human beings turn to God for help in times of severest distress. 50:13-15.

3. Finally, the psalmist condemns THE WICKED for speaking God's words and then rejecting God's words in their lives. Psalm 50:16-23.
    a. The wicked recite or quote God's statutes in public speech and take God's covenant on their lips, but they hate Yahweh's discipline and cast their words behind them. In daily living, they make friends with thieves, keep company with adulterers, speak deceitful words, and slander other people. Put another way, they break the Ten Commandments while they profess to speak and teach God's words. 50:16-20.
    b. Yahweh has watched all these sinful, professed practices and has kept himself silent through all this. But NOW Yahweh declares that he will rebuke and condemn such hypocrites and lay the charge before them. 50:21.
    c. The composer of Psalm 50 concludes by appealing to his sinful people to repent lest Yahweh destroys them, and to show genuine gratitude to Yahweh for what he has done for them so that he might deliver them from the impending calamity. Accordingly, sacrifices or external acts of religion have their place as an expression of a worshipper's appreciation for what God has done for him/her, but one can abuse such activities by using them as a means of coercing or persuading God to intervene in behalf of a hypocritical pretender. 50:22-23.

Hypocrisy has always plagued would-be worshippers and churches. Psalm 50 contains a very important message to warn against this practice.

Share YOUR experiences and perceptions and corrections and suggestions and concerns with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis


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