Psalm 50 – Judgment Begins Among the People of God
The title of this psalm (A Psalm of Asaph) tells us that it is the first of Asaph’s psalms in the order of the psalter. Asaph was the great singer and musician of David and Solomon’s era (1 Chronicles 15:17-19, 16:5-7, 16:7, 25:6). 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 add that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions.
A. The Mighty One and His judgment.
1. (1-3) The Mighty One comes to judge the earth.
The Mighty One, God the LORD,
Has spoken and called the earth
From the rising of the sun to its going down.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God will shine forth.
Our God shall come, and shall not keep silent;
A fire shall devour before Him,
And it shall be very tempestuous all around Him.
a. The Mighty One, God the LORD: Asaph the psalmist began by referring to God in terms of utmost majesty, using several of the words or names in Scripture to refer to the God who is really there.
· The Mighty One: “El stands for the might of God simply and absolutely.” (Morgan)
· God: “Elohim, the plural form, intensifies that idea; and in use always connotes the wisdom of God as well as His might.” (Morgan)
· The LORD: “Jehovah [Yahweh] is the title by which He is ever revealed in His grace.” (Morgan)
i. “The first three words of the Hebrew text emphasize that it is God who has spoken: El (= God), Elohim (= God), Yahweh (= LORD).” (VanGemeren)
ii. “The psalm begins with a majestic heaping together of the Divine names, as if a herald were proclaiming the style and titles of a mighty king at the opening of a solemn assize…. Each name has its own force of meaning. El speaks of God as mighty; Elohim, as the object of religious fear; Jehovah, as the self-existent and covenant God.” (Maclaren)
b. Has spoken and called the earth: The idea is that God has come to Jerusalem to judge the world, and the entire earth – from the rising of the sun to its going down– is gathered for that purpose.
c. Our God shall come, and shall not keep silent; a fire shall devour before Him: Using reminders of God coming to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19), Asaph built anticipation for the righteous judgment of God about to be performed. This time God comes to Zion, not Sinai.
i. “In this powerful psalm the imagined scene is a theophany, God appearing in fire and tempest at Mount Zion to summon the entire world to His judgment seat. But if all eyes are on Him, His eyes are on Israel.” (Kidner)
ii. “Fire is the emblem of justice in action, and the tempest is a token of his overwhelming power.” (Spurgeon)
2. (4-6) The scope of judgment narrows to the people of God.
He shall call to the heavens from above,
And to the earth, that He may judge His people:
“Gather My saints together to Me,
Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.”
Let the heavens declare His righteousness,
For God Himself is Judge. Selah
a. That He may judge His people: As God assembled heavens and earth for His judgment, He did not begin among the nations. God began His judgment among His people – His saints, those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.
i. “Suddenly – for it emerges with the last word of verse 4 – the tables are turned. Israel has appealed to God, only to find that she is herself the one on trial.” (Kidner)
ii. In the psalm this feels like a surprise, but it shouldn’t be. Many centuries later the Apostle Peter described the principle: For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
b. Gather My saints together to Me: God gathers His saints for judgment before the witnessing world. When God deals thus with His people, He often does it before a watching world. We would prefer that He deal with the sins of His people privately, but if they will not listen to His correction, the day will come when He deals with their sin with the earth as an audience.
c. Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice: It can be argued that Psalm 50 only has in direct view God’s judgment of Israel because it is the nation joined to Him in covenant as described here (Exodus 19:5-6; 24:5-8). Yet by extension (and the principle of 1 Peter 4:17), this has all the people of God in view. Both aspects are true.
i. “‘Made,’ or ratifying a covenant; literally, cutting, striking, perhaps in allusion to the practice of slaying and dividing victims as a religious rite, accompanying solemn compacts.” (Alexander, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. Believers will not face a judgment regarding their eternal destiny; they have trusted in Jesus and His work for them and are saved. However, they will face what Paul called the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10), where their works and motives as believers will be judged – presumably, for the sake of reward and measure of authority in the age to come.
d. Let the heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is Judge: God most certainly will judge the earth, including all the wicked, and He will do so in righteousness. Yet He absolutely has the right to begin His judgment among His own.
B. The judgment of God against His people.
1. (7-15) Rebuking their ritualism.
“Hear, O My people, and I will speak,
O Israel, and I will testify against you;
I am God, your God!
I will not rebuke you for your sacrifices
Or your burnt offerings,
Which are continually before Me.
I will not take a bull from your house,
Nor goats out of your folds.
For every beast of the forest is Mine,
And the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the mountains,
And the wild beasts of the field are Mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
For the world is Mine, and all its fullness.
Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God thanksgiving,
And pay your vows to the Most High.
Call upon Me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.”
a. Hear, O My people, and I will speak: The point from the previous lines is repeated and emphasized. God speaks here to His people, beginning His judgment among them.
i. I am God, your God: “And should, therefore, have been better obeyed.” (Trapp)
ii. “The law began with, ‘I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,’ and now the session of their judgment opens with the same reminder of their singular position, privilege, and responsibility. It is not only that Jehovah is God, but thy God, O Israel.” (Spurgeon)
b. I will not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings: God did not rebuke His people for offering sacrifices. He commanded them to do that. Yet, He was not interested in receiving more animal offerings (I will not take a bull from your house, nor goats from your folds) apart from their trusting obedience. This was a rebuke of ritualism, of empty repetition of religious ceremonies.
i. God spoke to their ritualism first, because it was under ritualism that they excused the sin described later in the psalm and thought themselves approved before God. “Why, at the first signs of His displeasure (50:7), do their thoughts fly to points of ritual, not of relationship?” (Kidner)
ii. The practice of sacrifice under the Old Covenant might easily become a mere ritual and empty formality. The one bringing the sacrifice might forget the principle of transferring sin to an innocent victim and how the lifeblood had to be poured out in death as a substitute. “The sacrifices under the Jewish law were of God’s appointment; but now that the people began to put their trust in them, God despised them.” (Clarke)
iii. “What he intended for their instruction, they made their confidence.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Believers under the New Covenant no longer offer animal sacrifices, but they are still tempted to practice their Christian duties in a spirit of ritualism. This must be actively avoided; God is not pleased by our ritualism.
v. “This was afterwards the sin of the Pharisees, is still of the Papists, and of too many carnal gospellers, who think they have served God, for they have been at church, done their devoir, for they have said their prayers, etc.” (Trapp)
vi. I will not take a bull from your house: Understanding the modern slang or street use of the word bull, we may smile at the unintended truth in the Revised Standard Version’s translation, I will accept no bull from your house.
c. For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills: With a little thought, it’s easy to see how ritualism does not please God. He has no need for the meat of sacrificed animals; if I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine and all its fullness. When we sacrifice to God, we don’t give Him something He doesn’t have; our sacrifice is for our sake and not His. Ritualism defeats its work for our sake.
i. “All sacrifices are God’s before they are offered, and do not become any more His by being offered. He neither needs nor can partake of material sustenance. But men’s hearts are not His without their glad surrender.” (Maclaren)
ii. “Do men fancy that the Lord needs banners, and music, and incense, and fine linen? If he did, the stars would emblazon his standard, the winds and the waves become his orchestra, ten thousand times ten thousand flowers would breathe forth perfume, the snow should be his alb, the rainbow his girdle, the clouds of light his mantle. O fools and slow of heart, ye worship ye know not what!” (Spurgeon)
iii. “‘If I were hungry,’ etc. Pagan sacrifices were considered as feasts of the gods.” (Cresswell, cited in Spurgeon)
iv. The cattle on a thousand hills: There’s a story – which may or may not be true, but is a good illustration – that shortly after Dallas Seminary was founded in the 1920s, it almost closed because of bankruptcy. The founders met for prayer and one of them was Harry Ironside. When it was his turn to pray, he said, “Lord we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are Thine. Please sell some of them and send us the money.” As the story goes, just then a Texas rancher came into the business office with a check from two carloads of cattle he had just sold. The secretary came into the office where the founders prayed, told them what happened and presented the check – it was for just the amount they needed to keep the seminary going. Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder and president of the school, turned to Dr. Ironside and said, “Harry, God sold the cattle.”
d. Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble: God described what He wanted more than rituals of sacrifice. He wanted a thankful heart, a life of obedience, and a living trust in Him. This God rewards; to this He says, I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me.
i. “The glorious God cares nothing for pomp and show; but when you call upon him in the day of trouble, and ask him to deliver you, there is meaning in your groan of anguish…. God prefers the prayer of a broken heart to the finest service that ever was performed by priests and choirs.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Spurgeon preached a sermon on Psalm 50:15 and titled it, Robinson Crusoe’s Text. Spurgeon recounted how in DeFoe’s book that after the shipwreck and on the island, Crusoe was about to die from illness. “He is ready to perish. He had been accustomed to sin, and had all the vices of a sailor; but his hard case brought him to think. He opens a Bible which he finds in his chest, and he lights upon this passage, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.’ That night he prayed for the first time in his life, and ever after there was in him a hope in God, which marked the birth of the heavenly life.” (Spurgeon)
2. (16-21) Rebuking their disobedience to His commands.
But to the wicked God says:
“What right have you to declare My statutes,
Or take My covenant in your mouth,
Seeing you hate instruction
And cast My words behind you?
When you saw a thief, you consented with him,
And have been a partaker with adulterers.
You give your mouth to evil,
And your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;
You slander your own mother’s son.
These things you have done, and I kept silent;
You thought that I was altogether like you;
But I will rebuke you,
And set them in order before your eyes.
a. But to the wicked God says: We might think that now God has turned away from judging His people for their ritualism and has turned toward the nations, to judge them for their wickedness. This isn’t the case, as the following references to declaring God’s statutes and taking His covenant show. He speaks to the wicked among the people of God.
i. “Formalism is a sin against God. Hypocrisy is its outcome, a sin against man, and so still against God.” (Morgan)
ii. “The real problem with ritual is that, if forms are all there is to our religion, they give us feelings of being right with God when actually we may be guilty of the most terrible sins.” (Boice)
b. What right have you to declare My statutes: God questioned their right to speak forth His word when their lives were stuck in fundamental disobedience. Their words (declare My statutes…My covenant in your mouth) spoke of God, but their lives dishonored Him.
i. To declare My statutes: “This verse may well refer to the public law-reading commanded in Deuteronomy 31:10ff.” (Kidner)
ii. What right have you to declare My statutes: “Origen, after his foul fall, opening the book and lighting upon this text, was not able to preach, but broke out into abundance of tears.” (Trapp)
c. Seeing you hate instruction and cast My words behind you: Their lives showed a hatred and disregard for the word of God, no matter what their words said. How they lived spoke louder to God than what they said.
d. When you saw a thief…partaker with adulterers…tongue frames deceit: They had specifically broken many of God’s commandments, including the eighth, seventh, and ninth commandments. This was another way they displeased God, in addition to the ritualism mentioned in the previous lines.
i. “The particular charges are representative of the whole Decalogue.” (VanGemeren)
ii. You consented with him: “It is true that the people who have broken the seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments have broken the whole covenant. But it is also true that those who associate with covenant breakers fall under the same condemnation! Sin lies both in the act and in the consent.” (VanGemeren)
e. You thought that I was altogether like you: In some ways this was their greatest sin, losing sight of the holiness of God. The main idea behind the concept of the holy is separation. In thinking that God was altogether like you, they considered Him more like a super-man instead of who He actually is: a holy God, enthroned in the heavens. They had become too casual and easy in their relationship with God.
i. One way that they forgot God’s holiness was in mistaking His patience and longsuffering for not caring about sin (these things you have done, and I kept silent). We often make the same mistake and confuse the generous space God gives for confession and repentance to mean that He doesn’t really care about our sin.
ii. I kept silent: “God’s silence is an emphatic way of expressing His patient tolerance of evil unpunished. Such ‘longsuffering’ is meant to lead to repentance, and indicates God’s unwillingness to smite. But, as experience shows, it is often abused.” (Maclaren)
iii. “A wonderful thing is that silence of God, that longsuffering with sinners and another wonderful thing is the impudent interpretation which the sinner gives to that silence.” (Spurgeon)
f. But I will rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes: They had misjudged God’s graciousness and forgotten His holiness. In His love, God would not allow that to continue among His people. He would set them in order before your eyes.
3. (22-23) Conclusion: The urgency to get right with God.
“Now consider this, you who forget God,
Lest I tear you in pieces,
And there be none to deliver:
Whoever offers praise glorifies Me;
And to him who orders his conduct aright
I will show the salvation of God.”
a. Consider this, you who forget God: Graciously, God offered those who forget Him an opportunity to consider and change their thinking and their ways before He comes to them in the judgment described in the first few verses of this psalm.
b. Whoever offers praise glorifies Me: This speaks to the aspect of forsaking ritualism and coming to God not in empty ceremonies but in surrendered heart.
i. Whoever offers praise: “The phrase ‘he who sacrifices a thanksgiving,’ while it leaves room for a literal sacrifice, is suggestive of an offering of pure praise.” (Kidner)
c. Who orders his conduct aright: This speaks to the aspect of forsaking the hypocrisy and wickedness and coming to God in confession and repentance.
d. I will show the salvation of God: Performing these two things – forsaking ritualism and shunning wicked hypocrisy – even those do not earn the saint salvation. It simply puts them in a place to receive what God reveals and gives: the salvation of God.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org