Second Sunday after Pentecost

God does, in reality, desire that we be generous

white cloth with fringe
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

June 11, 2023

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Commentary on Psalm 50:7-15

This is a commentary on the middle section of Psalm 50—Psalm 50:7-15. The psalm can be divided into three sections:

  1. Psalm 50:1-6—Introduction (See my 2021 commentary on these verses)
  2. Psalm 50:7-15—God speaks to his people
  3. Psalm 50:16-23—God speaks to “the wicked” (this section never occurs as a whole in the RCL; 50:1-8, 22-23 do occur in the semi-continuous option in Year C)

So, it is a little strange to be commenting only on the middle verses. It feels sort of like trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich without either the top or bottom slice of bread. But here goes …

Let’s start with a fun fact about Psalm 50:7-15. Many preachers loved the Revised Standard Version translation of Psalm 50:9a: “I will accept no bull from your house!” Many a preacher could have been caught thinking these words when the head of some household was offering unsolicited sermon feedback.

Here’s another fact about Psalm 50—it isn’t as funny, but it’s probably more relevant: Psalm 50 is a festival psalm. More precisely, Psalm 50 is considered one of the three great festival psalms—psalms that were composed for and used during one of the three festivals of the Israelite liturgical year: Passover, Pentecost (Weeks), and Booths. (The other two are Psalms 81 and 95.)

The reason that this is important is because at these festivals, the faithful people of Israel brought their tithes and first fruits offerings to the Temple (or another religious site) in order to fulfill the law. This law is laid out in several places in the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 16 is one place:

[Passover] “Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover for the LORD your God, for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. You shall offer the passover sacrifice for the LORD your God, from the flock and the herd, at the place that the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his name (Deuteronomy 16:1-2).

[Weeks/Pentecost] You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the festival of weeks for the LORD your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).

[Booths] You shall keep the festival of booths for seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your wine press … (Deuteronomy 16:13).

[Summary] Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed; all shall give as they are able … (Deuteronomy 16:16-17a).

Note two things. First, each of the festivals was an agricultural festival at which worship was commanded. Second, a specific offering to God was commanded of each family.

  • The spring festival of Passover included the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. The offering commanded was a “sheaf” or “armful” or barley.
  • The summer festival of Weeks or Pentecost marked the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The offering commanded was bread made of choice flour, along with seven lambs, one bull, and two rams.
  • The fall festival of Booths marked the harvest of the fruit of the orchards—olives, grapes, and the like. Numbers 29 outlines the tremendously large offering expected from the people: 189 animals and more grain and produce!

What is the point of all of this context? That God commanded offerings be offered at these three festivals.

Also note that Psalm 50 is a liturgy. In this liturgy, God speaks directly to the people. Liturgy is here not “the work of the people,” but rather “the Word of God.” In 50:3-4, the psalm says, “Our God comes and does not keep silence … He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people.”

Imagination plays a huge role in biblical interpretation. So imagine this psalm in the ancient world. As you imagine this psalm being used in ancient Israel, imagine being a worshiper who has come to worship and to bring the offerings that God has commanded: maybe a bull, maybe a ram, maybe a goat. Maybe some wheat, or barley, or wine, or olive oil, or a pair of doves. And then, when you bring forth your offering, rather than being greeted with the offering ritual laid out in Deuteronomy 26, you instead hear these words from God:

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? (Psalm 50:9-13)

At the basic level of meaning—what does the text say?—the psalm seems to reject everything commanded in the Pentateuchal laws. God does not—contrary to what you’ve read in the Torah—desire you to bring a bull, or a goat, or birds, any animal as an offering to God.

At the middle level of meaning—what does the text mean?—the psalm seems to be a fairly straightforward critique of the primitive notion that animal sacrifice in some way feeds God or the gods. God does not actually eat. God is not fed on the sacrificial, animal offerings of the people. God does not eat animal flesh, drink animal blood, or in any way subsist on sacrifices.

We can go further. Offerings are not in any way actual gifts to God. You can’t give anything to the person who already has everything. God made everything and all that exists already belongs to God. As Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” And as Psalm 50 adds, with more than a fair amount of sarcastic wit, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” You truly cannot give anything to the one who literally has everything.

So what, then, does this text mean at a still higher level of meaning: What does the text mean for us? The last two verses of the assigned text tell us:

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.

What God wants and what, in fact, God needs are these things: our gratitude, our confessions of faith, our prayers for help, and our praise. God does not need these things for God’s own self. But God does need these things for God’s mission. And, God needs our offerings for God’s mission, too. God does, in reality, desire that we be generous—for the sake of God’s mission to love, bless, and be reconciled to the whole world.