Psalm 50: Real Sacrifice





Tough Passages

One of the hard parts of reading the whole Bible is coming face to face with ideas that don’t fit nicely into our understanding of God, making us look deeper, figuring out how to synthesize these ideas with what we know to be true about God. If I’m not careful, as a coping mechanism I’ll glance over passages like this in search of more comforting memory verses. I want verse 23 without verse 22.


It’s not just verse 22 that gives me pause, so let’s rehash the whole Psalm (you go read it, too). It starts with a breathtaking picture of how big and terrifying our God is. His presence spans the entire world. His voice is a fire, a storm, and in the sky. And he’s calling all those who have committed themselves to him (i.e. the nation of Israel).

God does most of the talking from here on out. He is unhappy with the Israelites’ sacrifices. He accuses them of thinking that he needs them because he’s hungry. This is strange because in Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible), he gives them detailed instructions on how important these sacrifices are. 

But we see the real message in verses 14-15. “Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving! Fulfill the promises of the most High! Cry out to me whenever you are in trouble; I will deliver you; then you will honor me.” God doesn’t want ritual. Or he does because it centers our life around him (let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water), but it’s not enough. He wants our heart. We need thankfulness, obedience, and to recognize our need for rescue. (I should also point out that a sacrifice of thanksgiving is still an animal sacrifice, but I should further point out that New Testament faith does not require animal sacrifice, another convo for another time.)


God has always wanted our hearts. He wants our love. Our recognition of who he is. It’s for his glory, but also because when we set God in the proper place in our lives, it orders our lives correctly. It’s what we were born for.

We see this idea in a sometimes hidden but poignant way in the Prodigal son. Most of the attention in this story is paid to the younger brother, but neither brother loves God. The older brother does everything right. But he demonstrates that he does not love the father, or his brother, or care about the things the father cares about. In short, he is religious but does not love God or neighbor. He lacks thankfulness.


This makes sense. God doesn’t want ritual if we’re not actually going to follow him with our lives. We need to “fulfill the promises” (v.14), and be “blameless” (v. 23). What gives me pause and disorients me for a second are the sins that he lists (vv. 17-20). 

God is upset with the people who “hate discipline” and don’t obey God’s teaching (v. 17). But then, he’s also upset that people make friends with thieves and adulterers (2 ways to break commandments). Wait! Didn’t Jesus do that? Apparently, there are good and bad ways to make friends with sinners. Finally, out of left field, God is upset with people who talk trash about their siblings. My 21st century view of Christianity has a very low concern for gossip. I know it’s important. I’ve read James, but if I’m going to list the worst sins Israel can commit, gossiping, specifically, and only about my siblings on my mother’s side, probably won’t make the list……And yet, isn’t this exactly what the older brother did in the Prodigal Son story?


The last thing in verse 15 that God said we needed to do was cry out for deliverance. It’s also the promise for the righteous in verse 23. This is disorienting because I thought being righteous meant you didn’t need rescue. In fact, I often thought the Old Testament was about being righteous, and the New Testament was about how we couldn’t do that, so we needed rescue. Yet here, being righteous means recognizing our need for rescue. It’s not trying to justify ourselves, it’s recognizing, in humility, our need for God. Then we follow God’s instruction, not because we’re good, but because we need God’s plan for our life. Even his prescriptions for us are a gift to us and good for us. Looking at it this way protects us from the self-righteousness of a works-based salvation. Apparently, the Old Testament and the New Testament are more similar in theology than maybe I thought.


I highlighted verse 22 at the top for its shock value. What?! God might rip us to pieces?! I confess this is how I read it at first glance. It demonstrates how individualistic I am. This Psalm is written by Asaph, a David-appointed Levite. And it is written prophetically to all of Israel (vv.4-5) AS A PEOPLE. Rip them to pieces if they don’t follow God? Well, that’s exactly what happened to them in the next decades. The kingdom splits under David’s grandson Rehoboam, and it continues to splinter for the rest of the Old Testament. I’m not saying there aren’t some troubling passages about God’s anger in the Old Testament, but this is not one of them.

We need all of Scripture to bring a fuller picture of who God is, what he values, and who we are, that transcends our favorite verses and current movements in theology. If you’re still unsettled, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If our view of God is neat and understandable, then our God might not be big enough. And if passages like this send you into crisis mode, remember, Jesus is the EXACT representation of the character of God. Compare your ideas to Jesus, and let the idea of Jesus have primacy in your concept of God.

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