Commentary on Psalm 50:1-6
First there is a blinding flash of light and then the thunderous sound of God speaking. It’s the story of the Transfiguration, right? Yes. But it is also the beginning of Psalm 50.
A festival psalm
Psalm 50 was probably composed for use at the Festival of Booths—also called the Festival of Tabernacles, Festival of Sukkot, or the Festival of Ingathering. It is a Festival psalm, similar to the other Festival psalms …
In ancient Israel, the Festival of Booths was the most important of the three pilgrimage festivals, because, as the word “ingathering” signifies, it was the festival associated with the autumn grain harvest. The importance of this festival is also indicated in the book of Ruth, chapters 2-3. For a narrative understanding of its importance, read the story of Ruth, Boaz, and the good times folks had at the fall harvest.
In the “book of the covenant” in Exodus 21-23, God commanded the Israelites to keep three annual pilgrimage festivals: one in spring (“unleavened bread” or Passover), one in early summer (“harvest of the first fruits” or “weeks” or Pentecost), and one in the fall:
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:14-17; see also Deuteronomy 16).
At these festivals, the heads of the families were to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to bring their offerings—note that “no one shall appear before me empty-handed”—and to hear words from the Lord regarding the covenant between God and the covenant people.
Psalm 50 displays a clear structure and flow:
Part I—Psalm 50:1-6—God arrives and summons the covenant people to account
Part II—Psalm 50:7-15—God rebukes the faithful among the people for vain worship
Part III—Psalm 50:16-23—God rebukes “the wicked” for violating the covenant
The entire psalm really is ideal to be heard, sung, and preached in its fullness. I encourage worship planners and preachers to consider the whole psalm. But here I will focus only on the selected verses.
For the occasion of Transfiguration Sunday, only Part I—”the summons”—is assigned. Two poetic flourishes in this summons make the psalm fitting for Transfiguration Sunday—the light of God and the Word of God.
The light of God
The mighty one, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth (50:1-2).
The psalm poetically and liturgically begins by ushering in the presence of “the mighty one, God the Lord,” who “summons” the earth. One can imagine a Levitical priest or worship leader stepping forward to announce the presence of God. This is not just any God, but the Lord God of Israel who “shines forth” from Zion—that is, from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The image of God “shining forth” is a fairly rare word in the Hebrew Scriptures. It indicates the presence of God in a powerful and redeeming way—not just in an accompanying way. The psalmist in Psalm 80 and 94 pleads with God to “shine forth.” In Moses’ final blessing for the people before his death, he began his blessing by reminding the people of how “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran” (Deuteronomy 33:2).
The image of God “shining forth” is the image of a theophany—the sudden and real apparition of God to a person or group of people. Such a moment is what Peter, James, and John experienced at the Transfiguration. The psalm enacts such a theophany liturgically—that is to say, the psalm is not an actual theophany but a liturgical enactment or reenactment of the original theophany. As such, this psalm is perfectly suited to our Transfiguration worship services, which are liturgical enactments of Christ’s transfiguration/theophany.
The word of God
We can then imagine the Levitical priest of worship leader crying out:
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge. Selah (50:3-6).
The arriving God, who shines forth with light, then speaks: “Our God comes and does not keep silent.” God’s real presence at the festival of ingathering is not for the comforting sense of protection, such as one finds in psalms of trust such as 23, 27, or 46. Here, God’s arrival is terrifying—“before him is a consuming fire, a wild tempest is all around him” (my translation). Like the prophet Micah in Micah 6, God summons all of creation to serve as witnesses to a trial. In this trial, God himself will “judge his people” and all creation will be witness to this judgment.
In this lectionary selection, we hear only the summons: “Gather to me my faithful ones (my Hasidim), who cut a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
It is worth pursuing that in Part II of the psalm, the “faithful ones” are rebuked for vain worship. God does not rebuke them for bringing their sacrifices and offering—God does not require them, after all—“I will accept no bull from your house,” God says, according to the older RSV translation.
Rather, God wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” and God wants people to keep their promises. Given the whole slew of recent research into the positive power of gratitude rituals in a person’s life, this section of the psalm is worth reading and preaching.
In Part III of the psalm, God rebukes the wicked for breaking the basic commandments of the covenant, specifically mentioning making friends with thieves and adulterers (you shall not steal; you shall not commit adultery) and speaking violently against family and neighbor (you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor).
The psalm then ends with an appeal to “discern” or “understand” the gravity of what God has said (the NRSV has “mark this, then, you who forget God”).
The reading for Transfiguration Sunday has only “the heavens declare his righteousness” (verse 6). The obvious referent here is Jesus, of whom God says, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” Like the psalm, the Gospel calls the disciples—and us—to listen to God’s Word.
And what does he say next in the Gospel of Mark? The exact words are not recorded, but the Gospel says, “he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
It is a minor passion prediction. What does Jesus say? I am going to Jerusalem, where I will suffer, be put to death, and rise from the dead for you and for your salvation.