Psalm 50 looks into the relation between God and the faithful. It ends with an open invitation to understand what is said and to offer thanksgiving to God. In this sense it is a suitable companion to the reading from Isaiah 1, although as you will see below the lectionary for this week selects only certain verses from the psalm (vv. 1-8, 22-23), verses that cut across the natural divisions within the psalm. The background to Psalm 50 could be a festival of covenant renewal (cf. also Psalm 81) with reference to gathering, the mention of covenant, sacrifices and allusions to the Ten Commandments.
Psalm 50 falls into four sections. It opens in vv. 1-6 with a description of a theophany, or appearance of God. These opening verses present a barrage of names for God. There is no doubt who comes forth and summons the earth in v. 1. God’s shining forth in the midst of the people is a sign of deliverance to the faithful (Ps 80:3; cf. Deut 33:2) but judgment to those who oppose it (Ps 94:1). The description of the theophany, especially in vv. 3-6, draws heavily on the description of God’s appearance at Sinai (cf. Exod 19:16-19).
The rest of the psalm seems to take us in another direction. In vv. 7-15 God addresses the faithful about genuine sacrifice. This is the beginning of a lengthy speech by God that will carry through the rest of the psalm. The words in v. 7b are a shock: ‘I will testify against you.’ They echo some of the statements in Isaiah 1. These words are not what might have been expected from vv. 1-6 of the psalm and it raises a question whether Yahweh’s reference to his faithful ones in v. 5 is not a little ironic. The central concern of the psalm is stated in v. 8. God does not rebuke the people for their lack of attention to sacrifices (v. 8a). What is acceptable is a thanksgiving sacrifice and the fulfilment of vows, both related to the answering of prayer in times of trouble (vv. 14-15). It is not just a matter of manipulating God through sacrifice, but of genuine prayer and conversion based on a deep relationship. Some seem to think sacrifice is all that is necessary to maintain the covenant. In Psalm 50 the point is not the wealth of the sacrifice, nor the mechanics of it, but rather the relationship behind the sacrifice. That is what addresses the fear in times of trouble.
In vv. 16-21, God further rebukes the wicked. In previous psalms the wicked have been other nations or foreigners, but here, like in Isaiah 1, they are clearly people who recite God’s statutes and profess themselves as covenant partners. These people resist discipline and dispense with God’s word in spite of reciting the statutes and claiming the covenant.
Finally, in vv. 22-23 God calls those who forget God to understand what has been said and then describes the sacrifice that truly honours God. God addresses both those who forget God, the wicked just mentioned and those who respond with thanksgiving, a genuine sacrifice. The whole community hears this address. Those who forget God should ‘understand this’ (NRSV: ‘Mark this’) or God, pictured as a ravenous lion, will tear them apart (cf. Hos 5:14; Amos 1:2 etc.). There will be no one to deliver them. But to those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice, honouring God, God will show them salvation. The contrast between the two groups is sharp, although it is the whole community who hears both promises. Just as the title ‘faithful ones’ was unclear in v. 5 in terms of to whom it referred, so now the promises of judgment and salvation are held before all.
This psalm has a lot to say about distortion and falsity. It speaks about the nature of genuine sacrifice and the idolatrous images of God that can be generated to support superficial practices. It speaks about the false language and professions of the wicked. In this situation God even speaks in ways that are not clear. But in that very fact lies hope for even the wicked. If they understand, then they too can know deliverance. Psalm 50 not only speaks of the way God’s reign breaks into everyday life, it also addresses the ways we seek to manipulate or deny such an experience.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
The first part of the psalm, vv. 1-6, naturally lend themselves in whole or in part to both the call to worship and to the prayer of adoration. A suitable call to worship could be said responsively as follows:
The mighty one, God the LORD,The rest of the psalm lends itself to preaching in relation to the nature of thanksgiving as ‘sacrifice’. It would also need the space for explanation that could be afforded in preaching.
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Our God comes and does not keep silence.
He calls to the heavens above and to the earth,
that he may judge his people:
"Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!"
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.
Old Testament reading: Isaiah
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