<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.
18 You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.
21 These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
There is a lot of debate among scholars as to the original use of this psalm: whether it was a liturgy of covenant renewal or the words of a priest in a sermon but ultimately the original setting has faded far into the background and what remains is a psalm which lifts up a challenge to live one’s life according to the vision of God’s covenant. The book of Deuteronomy was a challenge for the people of God to live according to the covenant and commands of the God of Israel and the prophets frequently exhorted people to reorient their lives around the covenant. This Psalm, in concert with several of the prophets, places the worship of the LORD conducted in the temple in its proper perspective. The sacrificial and religious actions of the temple are not enough to appease the God of Israel, this God expects the people’s lives and their society to be ordered around God’s covenantal vision.
The psalm begins by preparing the hearer to listen to the words that God will speak through the speaker, most likely a priest addressing the community. Psalm 50 is the first psalm attributed to Asaph who is recorded as a Levitical singer in the time of King Solomon (2 Chronicles 11-13). Asaph begins by declaring the power and might of the LORD whose voice covers the breadth of the day, whose words are preceded by fire and a mighty tempest and calls on heaven and earth so that God may judge God’s people. While there are some thematic parallels to the speaking of God to Elijah at Mount Horeb where the great wind, earthquake and fire proceed the voice of God; this is not the voice of God which comes to Elijah in the sheer silence (1 Kings 19: 11-18) but instead this is the voice of God going out before the world to testify before not only God’s people but all of creation. The people of God are placed into a conversation which the whole world can overhear and judge them by as they are gathered in Zion to hear what God will speak.
Covenant making in the bible is a serious business which took place in the context of sacrificing an animal. The covenant that God makes with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 17 is probably the best-known example of a covenant making ceremony where the animals are cut open and the parties (God and Abram) pass between the portions of the animals obligating themselves to one another. Therefore, the phrase translated ‘made a covenant’ is literally ‘cut a covenant.’ Earlier in the psalms we have seen times where the psalmist has testified that God needs to act to keep the covenant but here the focus is on the people needing to do their part to fulfill the covenant. The covenant is not about ritual worship or sacrifices but instead is about the way of life that God expects the people to embrace- a way of justice to others and faithfulness to God.
These words were probably spoken in the context of worship, but worship is not enough. In many ancient cultures worship and sacrifice were to appease or entice the god being worshipped to grant favor to the worshippers. The God of Israel has different expectations. God will not be bribed by sacrifice or be satisfied by attendance in worship. The words of the Apostle Paul echo the content here when he appeals to the church in Rome:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12: 1-2
As master of all creation, the LORD has no need of any animal for food. God is not reliant upon the faithful ones for nourishment or life but instead is the provider of all things. What God desires is a transformed life and society which could ultimately renew the world. The people are commended to come to God in thanksgiving and to uphold their vows and the covenant and in return God will deliver and provide for them.
Knowing the right words to recite or knowing the content of the statutes, commandments and the covenant are not enough. One can worship properly and live as the wicked. The way of the wise is the way of God’s discipline. One’s company is indicative of the type of actions a person will commit and one’s words can cause deep harm to brothers and sisters. One’s words, one’s deeds and one’s associations matter in life. The wicked one may have avoided judgment and may have, by their worship and sacrifices, masqueraded as one of the righteous but God promises an end to God’s silence and inaction. To make a covenant with God and to fail to live in accordance with that covenant is viewed as a matter of life and death. There is no one to deliver the wicked from God’s words and justice. Conversely there is nothing that can separate the righteous ones from the salvation of God.