Suppose God were to pay us a visit before the great final day of judgment to sort of prejudge us to help us get ready for that great day. Suppose He were to appear and summon all people living on His earth, and separate them into two groups, His people, Christians, and then the ungodly. What might He say to each group? What might He say to Christians in general today? And what might He say to the people of the world in general today?
Did you know we have a Psalm in the Old Testament that pictures God doing that sort of thing, but around 1000 to 950 B.C.? It’s not an account of something that literally happened. But it paints a powerful instructive picture of God calling a personal meeting with mankind and what God would say to His people and then what He would say to the wicked in that day. I’d like us to look at that Psalm and consider if what God would have said back then are some of the sort of things we and the people of the world still need to hear today. It’s Psalm 50. Not a very well known Psalm, but it should be.
The little phrase above the Psalm attributes this Psalm to a man named Asaph. There are 2 things that we know about Asaph that may enhance our understanding of this Psalm. First, Asaph was the chief singing and music director at the tabernacle and then the temple under the reigns of king David and king Solomon. He was the head worship leader in his day. And his day was the high point in the history of Israel in regard to their devotion to the true and living God and their prosperity. Church attendance, if you will, was the highest it had ever been. Worship services were packed. The giving was outstanding. There were always sacrifices being offered on the altar from people. Things looked pretty good on the surface down at the temple. Secondly, we know that Asaph was a seer, according to II Chronicles 29:30. A seer is another word for a prophet (I Sam 9:9). This man was gifted to receive special communication from God; God communicated with him through visions or dreams or direct speech. And the Israelite nation recognized Asaph as a spokesman for God.
This Psalm, it appears, is about a vision that Asaph received, a vision of a personal meeting between God and the inhabitants of the earth. The Psalm divides into 3 parts. v1-6 envisions God calling this meeting. v7-15 God speaks to His people. Then v16-23 God speaks to the wicked.
Look with me at the first section
God calls a universal meeting (v1-6)
In v1 the Almighty Creator, the God of Israel who saved them from Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan, summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. In other words, I think, He summons all the inhabitants of earth. Can you see the people coming, nervous, trembling, responding to the summons of their Maker, out of every city and village, out of every forest and field, of every nation and color and language, gathering like the sand on the seashore?
In v2 from Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion, the mountain on which is God’s temple, where God dwells in a special way and is worshiped, comes forth a brilliant radiant expression of His presence.
In v3 He comes forth to speak with the people who are living in His world. He presents Himself like He did centuries earlier on Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel when He’d brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21). He presents Himself in a way that displays His incredible power. In front of Him is a devouring fire and around about Him is a mighty tempest.
In v4 he calls witnesses to this meeting. He calls all that remains of His creation, He calls the heavens above, perhaps including all the inhabitants of the heavens. And He calls the earth below to witness this occasion. He’s going judge these people, and first His people, Israel. It’s like a great cosmic courtroom trial. Though there’s no jury in this courtroom. There doesn’t need to be one, because God doesn’t need any help in making perfect judgments. But there are witnesses, and there is the Almighty Judge and there are the defendants, humanity.
In v5 God says, perhaps to the angels, “Gather My godly ones to Me, Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” God wants to talk first with those who are godly and have a covenant with Him by sacrifice. You remember when God brought Israel out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, He said to them through Moses, “If you will obey My voice and keep My laws, you will be My holy people and I will take care of you and bless you in all these ways.” And the people said, “Yes Lord, let’s make that deal.” And Moses had bulls sacrificed and their blood drained into basins. And he took a hyssop branch and slung half of the blood on the altar as God’s half and the other half of the blood he slung on the people, saying, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you this day.” And at that moment when God had His half of the blood and they had their half, they had a blood sealed covenant, a binding contract, a deal with God. These that God wants to talk to first are descendants of those who made that covenant. They were born into this covenant. And they are godly or pious, meaning they are committed to keeping that covenant. These are the people who regularly come to the temple bringing their tithes and offerings and sacrifices. This description would describe most of us church going people today. We have entered a covenant with God by sacrifice. Remember on the night in which Jesus was betrayed and He instituted the Lord’s Supper and when He had taken the cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The blood of Jesus seals a new covenant between God and people. And we contacted that blood and entered the new covenant in our commitment to Christ and baptism. And we are His godly ones today who are committed to our relationship with Him and worship Him.
In v6, before God speaks as Judge to His people, the heavens declare His righteousness. The heavens and the inhabitants of heaven know His nature because they dwell with Him. They know He is wholly righteous. In Him is no evil. And so every judgment He gives will be good and right and just and fair.
And then at the end of v6 is this mysterious word, “Selah.” There are many different opinions among scholars and commentators about the meaning and purpose of that word. I’ve heard of one suggesting perhaps it’s what the Psalmist said whenever he broke a guitar string. “Ah Selah!” I’m pretty sure that’s not it. The meaning that most suggest and that makes the best sense to me is that it means something like “pause,” “cease,” a direction to the singers to stop singing for a moment, maybe have a little musical interlude and think about what was just said. Give a little time to let what was said and what’s going on in the Psalm to sink in. The Creator, the Almighty, the God of heaven and earth, has gathered His universe before Him and He has something to say first to His people. What does He have to say?
God speaks to His people (v7-15)
Let’s read it, “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God. 8 I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. 9 I shall take no young bull out of your house Nor male goats out of your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. 12 If I were hungry I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains. 13 Shall I eat the flesh of bulls Or drink the blood of male goats? 14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High; 15 Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.”
It reminds me of when Jesus spoke to the seven churches of Asia in the book of Revelation, and to most of those churches He first commended them, saying, “I know Your deeds. You have this good quality and that. And you’re doing a good job in this area and that.” But then He would give His criticism, saying, “But I have this against you. You need to change in this area and that.”
God here says to His people, “I don’t have anything to say against the fact that you are faithful in your religious duties. Your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I’m not after more of your bulls or your goats. You’re doing good in your attendance and your giving and the rituals of worship.”
“But I have this against you. Here’s my complaint. It’s like you think that all I really care about is receiving sacrifices at My temple. It’s like you think that as long as you’re faithful in your attendance and bringing Me quality offerings that I’m totally pleased with you and that’s all that really matters. But you know, don’t you, that I don’t need, nor even really want your sacrifices in and of themselves. It’s good that you offer them. I’ve commanded you to offer them. There’s reasons for that. But I don’t really want your bulls and goats. They’re Mine already, along with every beast of the forest and the cattle on a thousand hills and every bird of the mountains and every creature that moves on earth. And you know I’m not hungry, right, like the pagans think of their gods, and that you’re not feeding Me dinner when you offer animals to me. If I were ever hungry I wouldn’t tell you. It’d be easier for Me to get My own dinner, than ask you to get it. What’s important to Me,” God is saying, “is not your sacrifices and it’s not these motions of worships.”
If God were to summon us a hear a word from Him today would He maybe remind some of us, “You know, I’m not really after your money. I’m not broke. Yes, I have commanded you to give. It’s good to give. But all the gold and silver in the world is already Mine. And I’m not really after your singing or your music itself. I’m not needing entertainment. Yes, I have commanded you to sing songs, hymns and spiritual songs. It’s good that you do that. But have myriads and myriads of angels who can play Me good music if that’s what I want. And I’m not really after your body being present in this building and a cracker and grape juice touching your lips on a weekly basis. That in and of itself doesn’t do anything for Me.”
What does God want from us?
We can’t give Him anything that doesn’t already belong to Him. We can’t help Him out in any way. We can’t do chores for Him that make His life easier. What does He want from us? Well, you know, some of us are in sort of a similar position as God in that some of us have these little people that we love more than ourselves who are totally dependent on us and unable to really help us. We ask them to do chores for us but really it would be easier if we just did it ourselves. And they don’t provide anything for us. And I think what we mainly want of those little people is also what God wants of each of us. We want mainly 3 things from our little dependants. One is obedience. I want my kids to trust that I know what I’m talking about when I give them instructions, whether they understand it or not, and to just do as I tell them for their own good. Second, we want them to love others, especially those of our family. I don’t want my kids making life miserable for each other or their mother or their grandparents or anyone else, and not just not make life miserable for them, but I want them to bring joy and be a blessing to their family and others. And third, we want them to love us in return.
A scribe tested Jesus with the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?“And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’” God has this great goal in mind of a big loving family that He spends eternity with, a huge family of like freewill beings that He loves and takes care of and blesses and who genuinely love Him and love one another. That’s why He made us, to accomplish that family that receives and reciprocates His love. He doesn’t want hearts that just go through the motions of worship, that just carry out their religious duties because they feel obligated, because they think they have to to avoid punishment. He wants people who want to please Him and want the best for others.
So God says to His people here…
“There are 3 things I want you to do” (v14-15).
These all either express and build love in our hearts for Him and others.
#1, Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
“I want you to think about what all I have given you and do for you and have promised to do for you that I don’t have to do. I want you to remember that you don’t feed Me. I feed you. You don’t take care of Me. I take care of you. I want you to realize that all that you are and all that you have everyday is from Me. And I want you to be thankful and expresses thankfulness.” Thankfulness begets love for God and for others. Being thankful is fundamental to us being who God wants us to be. It creates in our hearts the desire to please and honor God for all He’s done for us. And thankfulness is the antidote to greed and discontentment. It’s much easier to give and share and let go of stuff for others when you know you are blessed far more than you deserve. It’s the antidote to jealousy and envy of others and grumpiness. “So #1, I want you to be offering sacrifices of thanksgiving.”
#2, Pay your vows to the Most High.
Normally when I have made a vow to God it is because I am conscious of the fact that I am not all that I should be and I’m promising God that I’m going to be better. David said in Psalm 66:13-14, “I shall pay You my vows, which my lips uttered And my mouth spoke when I was in distress.” That’s usually when you make a vow, when you’re in trouble. “O Lord please help me now, get me out of this mess, I promise I’m going to change this in my life and do better at this.” But then when we get out trouble, do we keep our vows or are we like the little kid sliding down the roof, “O God help me. Help me God. I’m slipping. I’m falling. I will quit stealing and cussing and sassing my mother…” Then his pants got caught on a nail, and he said “O never mind God, the nail stopped me.” (adapted from a sermon by Chuck Smith). Well, I don’t know what all vows you’ve made, but I know if you’re a Christian then back when you were lost and desperate in sin you in essence made a vow. You said, “Lord, if you will get me out of this mess, I will try to live my life according Your will. I will listen and learn and follow You in my life from here on out.” God says, “I’ve kept My end of the deal. I always keep My promises to you. Now you keep yours.”
#3, Call upon Me in the day of trouble.
When devastating illness strikes, when you’ve lost your job and are in a financial crisis, when your marriage is on the rocks, when you’re in trouble, pray. Have you ever thought, “Why does God want us to call on Him when we’re in trouble?” And why is it that the Scriptures teach that sometimes He won’t intervene in our trouble until we call on Him? He doesn’t need us to inform Him of our situation. He knows all that’s happening in our lives. So why does He want us to call on Him in our troubles? I think it has to do, at least in part, with what the end of v15 says. “I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” You see, if we don’t call on God when we’re in trouble and He were to just rescue us anyway, then likely we wouldn’t realize that God was paying attention to us and God cares about us and that He actually acted in our behalf. We’d think that we just got out of our mess ourselves or that we were just lucky and we wouldn’t be as thankful to God as we should be. God wants us to be calling on Him and experiencing answers to our prayers, experiencing after prayer the reversal of what seemed to be a hopeless situation, because then it impresses in our hearts that God really does hear us and care about us and He really does act on our behalf. If you know about the tremendous improvements in the health of Seth Pleasant or Phyllis Funk, hasn’t that been awesome and encouraging and made you love God all the more. They’ve being calling on God and others of us have too on their behalf and God has turned around what looked like hopeless situations. The doctors said Phyllis only has about 3 months left to live. Now, after a lot of praying the doctors are saying she could live for many years. And imagine how the hearts of Seth and Phyllis have grown in their love for God. So God wants us to be calling on Him when we’re in trouble. It’s part of the process of shaping us into the kind of people He wants to spend eternity with.
Then God speaks to a different group beginning at v16. v16 begins, “But to the wicked God says…”
God speaks to the wicked (v16-23)
Who are the wicked? The Bible’s definition is much broader, much more inclusive than most people’s. We shouldn’t just envision the worst of society here. If I’m right in my interpretation of this Psalm that God has summoned all the inhabitants of the earth here, then God is speaking here with the majority of mankind.
God says to them, “What right have you to tell of My statues And to take My covenant in your mouth?” “You have no right to even speak of My holy word as though you have any sort of relationship with Me. We’re not good terms, you and I.” I imagine a lot of people before Him with shocked looks on their faces, looks like, “Why not? I’m a decent taxpaying citizen. I’m not wicked.”
Then God states His case against them. He charges the majority with 4 crimes.
#1, You hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.
“You hate being told what you should and should not do. You think you know best about how to live your life. And you don’t respect Me, your Maker. So you won’t let My words change how you want to live.” Well, that sure describes a lot of people, doesn’t it? Who actually listens to the Sermon on the Mount and let’s Jesus’ words determine what they do in regard to those who wrong them and in their businesses and with their money and in regard to their enemies and so forth?
#2, When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you associate with adulterers.
In other words you may not actually steal yourself or commit adultery yourself, but it doesn’t really bother you if your friends do so as long as they’re not stealing your stuff or sleeping with your wife. You may laugh with them about it. Sin doesn’t bother you much as long as it’s not against you. You’re not really bothered by the suffering it causes other people or about how I feel about those actions.
#3, You let your mouth loose in evil and your tongue frames deceit.
That’s most people. Most people let their mouths loose in evil, particularly in lying. I came across an article on Forbes.com, the Forbes magazine web site. The article is entitled, “Lying is Good for You.” I kid you not. And that’s what the article tries to establish. Let me read to you a bit of it, “Simply put, we lie because it works. When we do it well, we get what we want. We lie to avoid awkwardness or punishment. We lie to maintain relationships and please others. And, of course, most of all we lie to please ourselves. Whether we’re embellishing our credentials or strengthening our stories, we often tell untruths to make ourselves appear and feel better. What’s more, we lie all the time. In 2002, Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a study in which he secretly videotaped students’ conversations with strangers. After the fact, he had the students examine the videotapes and identify the untruths. On average, they claim to have told three lies per ten minutes of conversation. And that number is likely far too low. .. we’re likely to under report the number of lies we tell (we lie about lying, that is). And Feldman’s study only accounted for lies of the verbal variety, ignoring other deceptive behavior–misleading body language or facial expressions, for example. In fact, we lie so readily that the dishonesty becomes automatic. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of the lies we tell…” But Proverbs 6:17, God hates a lying tongue.
#4, You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.
“You don’t hesitate to spread juicy rumors about people and make others look bad if it makes you look better, even if it’s your own brother.” Pascal, the philosopher said, “If everybody knew what each said of the other, there wouldn’t be four friends left in the world.” It’s how most people are.
The majority would have to agree, if they’re being honest, that they are guilty as charged.
And then God warns the majority who are this way.
v21, “These things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.” In other words, “You’ve made the mistake of thinking that my silence meant either I didn’t know what you were doing or that I didn’t care or that I’m too weak to do anything about it. You think because you’re not punished immediately, that because I haven’t already smote you, that I’m just letting you get away with it. But my silence is only patience. I’ve not been approving or looking the other way. I’ve just been giving you time to repent.”
v22, “Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver.” “One day My patience will end and, like a lion does to his prey, I will tear you in pieces.”
But then He ends, v23, with this…
Gracious appeal and invitation
I think He’s still speaking to the wicked and He says, “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God.” “If you will but repent, if you’ll express gratitude to Me for the life I’ve given you and all that you have, and order your life into harmony with My will, then you will see My salvation.”
I wonder if the writer of the letter of Hebrews had Psalm 50 in mind when he wrote in Hebrews 13:15-16, “Through Him [Christ] then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” What God really wants is that we demonstrate love and gratitude and adoration to Him, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves, that we do not neglect the doing of good and sharing.
– James Williams