< February 19, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 50:1-6

 

The chosen portion of Psalm 50 is rich with the light imagery that is common to all of the lectionary selections for Transfiguration Sunday.

The arc of the sun, the fire of the divine presence, the radiant beauty of Zion, and especially the image of God "shining forth" offer points of connection to the radiance of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the Transfiguration story, and preachers whose interpretive focus is primarily on that story may find these visual associations valuable to illustrate the frequency with which God's presence is depicted in the Bible as being accompanied by bright light. However, if the Psalm reading is to be engaged wholly or primarily on its own terms, there are other aspects of the text that must be considered.

The visual imagery of the passage is not invoked for its own sake, nor as a mere testament to the glory of the Lord. The blazing divine presence is the power behind an important and far-reaching summons. God is calling "the heavens above" and "the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting" to bear witness to God's actions as judge. God's radiance and power help to establish his right to sit in judgment, and the calling of heaven and earth to bear witness establish the scope of God's jurisdiction. This passage is more a subpoena than it is a hymn of praise.

The judge is present and qualified, and the witnesses are summoned. The missing piece of the tableau is a defendant, and the identification of the charged party is soon offered, as the Psalmist declares that the witnesses were summoned "that [God] may judge his people." Furthermore, this judgment will have to do with Israel's covenant obligations in some way, as is made clear in the direct speech of the Lord, "Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!"

If the interpreter engages only the selected verses, the particulars of the covenant violations with which Israel will be charged are not present. That being the case, there is opportunity for preaching the importance of covenant faithfulness on the part of God's people, and on the consequences of covenant violations, in any number of areas. Such flexibility might aid the preacher in bringing the text to bear on the life and context of a given community, but it also leaves open the possibility of forced readings that do violence to the sense and aims of the Psalm.

To prevent such forcing of the text, it is highly advisable to consider the remaining verses of Psalm 50, whether or not they are read in worship. The Psalm as a whole offers two general indictments of Israel:

In verses 7-15, Israel's worship practices are called into question. The message here shares many features with the common prophetic complaint that the offering of sacrifices has come to take the place of true worship of the living God, in a triumph of form over substance. Psalm 50 explicitly does not condemn sacrifice per se, but rather challenges a particular understanding of sacrificial observance. The Psalmist declares that God will not accept sacrifices "from your house" or "from your folds," and then reminds the reader that all of creation, including those things brought for sacrifice, already belongs to God. Imagining that one's offerings are a gift to God, or that they fulfill some need of God's, is to claim ownership of what belongs only to the Lord. This attitude is here condemned as being contrary to Israel's faith and to Israel's covenant commitments. Instead, God's people are to treat their offerings as acts of thanksgiving for all that God has done and given. Such sacrifices alone, says the Psalm, are acceptable to God.

In verses 16-21, a similar complaint is lodged against Israel. This time, though, instead of sacrifice, it is the recitation and citation of the covenant that is held up for inspection. Again, the practice itself is not condemned, but rather the empty and hypocritical speaking of devout words while living a rapacious and predatory life. To pay only lip service to God's decrees while living in a manner contrary to them is to act as if God is either powerless to enforce the divine will or, as the Psalm puts it, "one just like yourself," whose words are not backed by actions.

By following the lead of the whole of Psalm 50, the interpreter can offer specific direction to the call to covenant faithfulness issued in the first six verses. God's people, whether in ancient Israel or in the church today, are called to attend to the substance and meaning of their religious activities and proclamation, and not merely the forms of them. They are called to give offerings as an act of thanksgiving, rather than of grudging surrender of what they imagine to be their own. They are called to be disciplined and led by the words of the covenant, not merely to recite them. The message of Psalm 50 is that in seeking to follow these calls, the people give honor to God and are shown the way of God's salvation.