Probably most Christians are familiar with the biblical statement, “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” However, most Christians know very little about the psalm in which this statement is made, which is Psalm 50. Psalm 50 contains a significant message, but is poorly understood and largely neglected apart from the single familiar verse it contains. The message of Psalm 50 is that worshiping authentically means serving God from the heart and keeping His commandments; no one will please God merely by performance of religious rituals. Believers must not substitute the formalities of worship for a life of worship, and unrepentant hypocrites must realize that no one will be saved by an insincere profession of faith or by joining an assembly of believers.
In Psalm 50, the psalmist Asaph, who is called “the seer” in 2 Chronicles 29:30 (cf. 1 Chr 25:1-3), reports a vision of God coming to judge His people. This judgment scene was real in the sense that Asaph saw it, but he was the only one who saw it. The judgment he saw was therefore like a report card, rather than the final judgment.
Psalm 50 begins with the issuing of a summons: God, [even] God, Yahweh, has spoken, and summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting (v. 1). God sends out a summons to the entire earth for all of his saints to be gathered to a great assembly; however, this summons is heard only in the vision seen by the prophet Asaph. Thus, this psalm reveals what God would say to His people if they were physically assembled in His visible presence.
In verses 2-3, Asaph describes how he saw God coming to the great assembly: Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined forth. Our God comes, and does not keep silence; a fire devours before Him, and it is very tempestuous around Him. God flashes forth in a dazzling blaze of glory from His dwelling place (Zion) to call His people to a great assembly—not to the final judgment, but to an interim evaluation. When God’s glory is visibly manifested, as Asaph sees it, it is with a fearful and fiery tempest (cf. Exod 19:16-19; Deut 9:3; Pss 18:13; 97:2-5; Dan 7:10; Nah 1:2-8; Hab 3:3-5). The Lord is a stronghold to those who take refuge in Him (Nah 1:7), but is an all-consuming fire toward His enemies in the day of His wrath (Nah 1:8; cf. Lev 10:2; Ps 21:9; Heb 12:29).
In verse 4, God calls witnesses to the judgment scene: He calls to the heavens above, and to the earth, that He may judge His people. Under the Mosaic Law, two witnesses were required to render a judicial sentence (Deut 19:15). Here, heaven and earth are called to be witnesses at a judgment of God’s people. The earth will witness to the works of man, and the heavens to the righteousness of God (cf. Deut 31:28; Pss 19:1; 97:6). Although the call of inanimate objects to bear witness sounds like a metaphorical personification, every human action does in fact effect a change on the physical world, while God’s righteousness has a corresponding effect on the heavenly world; they both, therefore, contain a record which constitutes evidence in a court of law. Likewise, both are in fact capable of responding to commands from their Creator (cf. Gen 1:11-18; Matt 8:26-27).
Verse 5 gives the content of the summons: Gather My saints together to Me, those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice. God’s saints, that is, those who have set themselves apart to Him through covenant sacrifice, are to be gathered together out of all the earth to a great assembly. As will be seen, this group includes all who profess to be God’s people, and within this group are both true believers and those who have made an insincere profession of covenant loyalty. God’s covenant with Israel was originally made at Sinai (Exod 24:1-8), but each individual Israelite (or proselyte) had to confirm his own participation in the covenant by means of repeated sacrifices (a covenant was confirmed with the shedding of blood—cf. Heb 9:18-20).
The introduction to the judgment scene is completed in verse 6 by a call to the heavens, i.e., the universe: And the heavens will declare His righteousness; for God Himself is judge. Selah. God has called the heavens as a witness in this grand courtroom scene to affirm His righteousness, and therefore His fitness to judge. The order of the physical universe attests to the moral perfection of its Creator.
The earth now having, in the vision, produced God’s people and the evidence of their works, the trial begins. God first addresses the people as a whole in verse 7, calling them to attention: Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify to you: I am God, [even] your God. The reason why the people must pay attention is that the Speaker is God. Not only is He God, He is specifically the God of His covenant people. Therefore, He will hold the people accountable to keep their covenant obligations—toward God (vv. 7-15), and toward man (vv. 16-21).
Before criticizing His people for what they were doing wrong, God first affirms them for what they were doing right. In verse 8, He says, I will not reprove you for your sacrifices; and your burnt offerings are continually before Me. The Law prescribed a “continual burnt offering,” which was presented each day in the morning and evening, in addition to regular sacrifices to be repeated each sabbath, each new moon, and on feast days (see Numbers 28). During the time of David and Solomon, when this psalm was composed, the morning and evening sacrifices were duly offered each day, and so were the prescribed sacrifices at the feasts.
However, sacrifice is not ultimately what God values; what He values is righteousness in the heart, as verse 9 explains: I will take no bull out of your house, nor male goats out of your pens. If the people were told that God wanted something from them, they would probably assume that He wanted one of their animals for a sacrifice. This is, after all, what they were accustomed to giving God. However, as God begins to explain in this verse, He does not need our material goods, our money, or our animals. He is totally sufficient in Himself, and He owns everything (cf. Job 41:11). What He really wants is our hearts.
In verses 10-12, God reminds the Israelites that the world is His: For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains; and the creatures of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof. The bulls that the Israelites brought to the temple every day were already God’s before they even sacrificed them. If God were hungry—a ridiculous idea, but here hypothetically stated for sake of argument—He certainly would not be dependent upon man for food, since He owns all the sustenance in the entire world.
In verse 13, God asks a rhetorical question to drive the point home: Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? As a spiritual being, God has no need for physical sustenance. More than this, God is the Creator of all things and is ontologically independent from all else (cf. Job 34:13-15; 35:5-8). It is God’s creatures who are dependent upon Him, not Him on His creatures (cf. Acts 17:24-25). While the pagans did in fact speak of their gods getting hungry if sacrifices were not offered, the true God says such an idea is absurd. God did not command the Israelites to offer sacrifices because He has physical needs.
In our own day, many people think that God needs their money. Christian organizations think that the key to increasing the effectiveness of their ministries is raising more money. However, a focus on money typically weakens organizations spiritually, as the materialistic philosophy of wealthy donors and businessmen becomes the philosophy of the ministry (cf. Matt 6:24; 19:20-24; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; 18:24; 1 Tim 6:9-10; Heb 13:5; James 5:1-4; 1 John 2:15-17). The first century church grew without substantial financial patronage, which shows that the Lord does not need money. What the Lord really needs, if we may speak of Him as needing something, is the hearts of people. God works through people to do great things, and it seems that He especially blesses when His people are of ordinary means. While God certainly wants believers to give to full-time Christian ministers and to needy brothers, He is able to provide for His own even if the people fail to give as they ought or if they have little to give. A Christian organization that raises money by giving special honor and favors to the rich (contra James 2:1-13) is weakening its ministry, not increasing its effectiveness.
The assertion in verses 8-13 that God does not need animal sacrifice begs the question for the Old Testament worshiper: What is it, then, that God wants? Verse 14 gives the answer—God wants us to offer Him our hearts. Offer thanksgiving to God, and pay your vows unto the Most High. Offering “thanksgiving” refers to a metaphorical sacrifice, the substance of what is represented by ceremony—a verbal expression of a true heart of devotion toward God. What God wants is worship from the heart, not empty ritual (cf. Ps 69:30-31; Hos 14:2). Paying vows to God is another expression of heartfelt worship, since vowing was entirely voluntary; however, once a vow was made, it had to be kept, or “paid” (cf. Deut 23:21; Eccl 5:4-5).
In verse 15, God promises to be faithful to those who honor Him from the heart: And call on Me in the day of distress: I will deliver you, and you shall honor Me. Most people who hold to some sort of belief in God will cry out to Him for help when they are in trouble, but God does not deliver all who do so. Psalm 50 teaches that God only responds to those who honor and obey Him. Many people seek to use God as a tool to help them get what they want, but they refuse to submit to God’s directions regarding how to live and think. For those who do obey God and are delivered from trouble by Him, the proper response is to “honor,” or glorify, God. Praising God for deliverance implies that the help He gives man is entirely by grace, and not by earned merit for man’s righteousness, as later rabbinic Judaism would come to teach.
Beginning in verses 16-17, God addresses a group of hypocrites who had made a formal profession of faith and were participating in the rituals and ceremonies of Judaism, but who had denied the faith through their actions: But to the wicked God says, “What are you doing, declaring My statutes, and having taken My covenant in your mouth, since you hate instruction, and cast My words behind you?” The focus of vv. 7-15 was on the means of fulfilling the greatest commandment: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). Israel was formally keeping the rituals of sacrifice prescribed in the Law, but had made ceremonial acts of religious devotion their primary focus, rather than the inner righteousness of the heart. Within Israel, a second, smaller group of people had also formally placed themselves under the covenant through religious ceremonies, but this group believed they could receive the blessings promised in the covenant without obeying the moral stipulations of the Law. Thus, the message of vv. 16-21 concerns the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). The failure of the hypocrites to love their neighbors demonstrated their abrogation of the whole Law. Verse 17 accuses the hypocrites of casting God’s words behind their back, which means they are living and acting in complete disregard of God’s commands.
In verses 18-20, God makes specific accusations against the hypocrites: When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and you joined in with adulterers. You have given your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit [and] speak against your brother; you slander your mother’s son. Not only have hypocrites broken the seventh and eighth commandments (Exod 20:14-15), they have openly approved of stealing and adultery. They have deliberately caused harm with their mouth and have spoken lies. They have even committed the ultimate treachery by publicly defaming their own brothers.
God concludes His message to the hypocrites by assuring them in verse 21 that He will judge them: These things you have done, and I kept silence; you thought that I am surely such a one as yourself. But I will reprove you, and set [your deeds] in order before your eyes. The fool ignores God’s Word and lives as if God does not exist and the day of judgment will never come. However, the reason for the delay in God’s judgment is not indifference, but longsuffering. God knows exactly what the hypocrites have been doing, and He will present their deeds before them at the judgment, exposing them as frauds. In fact, if this were an actual day of judgment, rather than a judgment in vision alone, the hypocrites would be destroyed immediately after the evidence was duly exhibited. God’s longsuffering is often misinterpreted as indifference, but in fact God is just—unlike the hypocrites—and He will settle accounts on a future day of judgment.
The psalm ends in verses 22-23 with an epilogue of warning and promise: Now consider this, you who disregard God, lest I tear you in pieces while there is no deliverer: he who offers thanksgiving honors Me; and to him who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God. The hypocrites disregard God (cf. Ps 10:4), but in God’s mercy they have only been condemned in this vision, giving them time to repent before the final judgment. While many wicked men believe they can get away with their misdeeds because of their smarts and strength, God warns them that no one will be able to save them in the day of His wrath. However, those whose faith is sincere—as demonstrated by going beyond the mere formalities of worship to live a life of praise and obedience to God—will obtain God’s salvation.
Psalm 50 is thus a strong Old Testament call to have a faith that is genuine, rather than trusting in membership in a covenant community and performance of covenant rituals for salvation. Faith that is unaccompanied by works is dead, and cannot save (cf. Rom 2:17-29; James 2:14-17). Further, salvation is an individual matter, not a corporate decision. The man who numbers himself among God’s people but is wicked in character must repent of his sins and glorify God in order to escape the coming judgment.
It is well known from the New Testament that the rabbis and Pharisees of the intertestamental period made Judaism a religion of external and largely manmade laws which emphasized outward acts of legal conformity, thereby passing over the need for inner righteousness. However, this form of Judaism should in no way be superimposed on the Old Testament, for there are a great many Old Testament verses which directly clarify the primacy of heart righteousness over sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11-20; Jer 7:22-23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8).
The great paradox of Psalm 50 is that it was not written by a man who was opposed to ritual. The inspired superscription of Psalm 50 reads, “A Psalm of Asaph.” Asaph was a Levite whom David appointed to lead worship before the ark in Jerusalem (1 Chr 16:4-7, 37). We know that Asaph also ministered during the early part of Solomon’s reign (2 Chr 5:12). It is possible that Psalm 50 was composed while Solomon’s temple was being built, or at the time of the dedication of Solomon’s temple (959 BC). If this is the historical setting, then Psalm 50 was intended to function as a warning against misuse of the temple for hollow ritualism. It would be a temptation for the Israelites to think that because they had a beautiful temple and wonderful rituals—and they were performing all the rituals—that God was pleased with them. It is a temptation for us, as well, to think that because we have been baptized, and we attend church, and we sing songs of praise to God, and we participate in the rite of communion, and we give money to the church, and we celebrate Christmas and Easter, that God is pleased with us (cf. 1 Cor 13:3). We must remember that there is an authentic and an inauthentic way to worship, and that authentic worship, as an expression of authentic faith, honors God in all of our life, and not just in specific acts of worship within the church.
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