I’d like to post some of my reflections on Psalm 50.
The first six verses appear to be a simple praise of God. I believe this stanza is setting us up for the hard lessons that we are going to hear in the four remaining stanzas. Yet before we go there, we are reminded that the Lord is the God of gods (v. 1), that God will come and will not keep silence (v. 3), and that “God himself is judge” (v. 6).
Then we hear from God in the second stanza (here’s the whole thing, because I believe it’s important to read):
‘Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt-offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house,
or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.’
Personally, I love it when God asks rhetorical questions. If this was your kid talking to you, would you take it? Of course not! But remember, this is what the first stanza sets up for us – God is the judge and he is the one that is speaking. As Episcopalians, we need to read this stanza with a penitent and reflective attitude. We (myself included) love our worship. We love the pageantry, the beauty, the transcendence of our communal praise of God that is found in our choirs, our vestments, and our beautiful language. But hold on – what does God really desire? “A sacrifice of thanksgiving” and making good on our vows to the Most High (v. 14). Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to abandon the beauty of our worship, but I am going to seriously reflect on the true nature of worship of God (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” [James 1:27]).
Then we get into the third stanza – and hold on folks, because now it gets real crazy. “But to the wicked God says: ‘Why do you recite my statutes, and take my covenant upon your lips?” (v. 16). Whoa, who are the wicked? The wicked are those who know God’s commandments and who have entered into the covenant with him! It is easy for us to point to outsiders, to those who don’t know or wouldn’t associate with us and say, “they are the wicked ones because they are not one of us.” But listen to this psalm – the wicked are those among us, and sometimes the wicked are us.
This goes along with the theme in the second stanza. The condemnatory finger is pointed at us because of our worship and because of our wickedness. Unlike many other psalms, in which the enemy is clearly identified as another person or group of people (check out Psalm 60), this psalm is a prophecy against people like you and me.