“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God.” These sobering words of I Peter 4:17 summarize the message of Psalm 50. It is a resounding call for the people of God to reexamine the character of their faith and the sincerity of their worship.
Psalm 50 begins with a scene that recalls the theophany at Sinai, with God appearing like a storm in all His glory (vs. 3). He shines forth out of Zion (vs. 2), but it is Zion that He has come to judge (vs. 4). The heavens and earth are called to bear witness to God’s judgment against His own people, but what follows is a warning rather than a verdict. The message is meant to expose hard truths, stir the conscience, and rouse God’s people to greater faithfulness.
God first addresses those for whom worship had become a mere procedure rather than an earnest encounter with the Savior. The ritual of sacrifice had become devoid of genuine thanksgiving (vss. 7-14). While the form of true worship has changed since the advent of Christ, the church still faces the onset of impassive formality that often threatens to overcome the faithful sincerity that God deserves in our worship. It is noteworthy that God does not rebuke the sacrifices themselves (vs. 8). There is a biblical form to worship that God has every right to command and we have no right to ignore, however, that form can become an empty shell if our hearts are not truly engaged to the Lord in worshipful adoration. The danger of merely going through the motions of worship is that those motions can make us feel spiritually at ease when our hearts may not actually be right with the Lord.
In spite of their empty decorum, the people apparently had a high view of their sacrifices. God had to remind them that all animals are His in the first place (vss. 10-11), and He surely did not need them for food (vss. 12-13). Other ancient Near Eastern religions that practiced animal sacrifice envisioned such offerings as food for the gods rather than a symbol of atonement. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the character Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the hungry gods who swarm around it like flies. Few people feel prompted to feed their god anymore, but worship that is dictated by human needs and tastes is the modern equivalent of Utnapishtim’s sacrifice. When God is envisioned in our image, or as anything less than the holy God that He is, worship takes on an earthy logic.
God then turns His rebuke on the hypocrite who declares God’s statutes in one setting and speaks evil in another (vss. 16, 19). Worse, he claims God’s covenant and yet is an accomplice to thieves and adulterers (vss. 16, 18). Upon reading this we may immediately think of the headline stories of popular church leaders exposed for living a double life, but we must examine our own hearts for traces of this kind of duplicity. Our coddled sins may never make the headlines, but God promises that He will “set them in order before your eyes” (vs. 21). God knows our sinful inconsistencies; we are the ones who need to see them and turn from them. This passage reminds us that constancy is part of sanctity. We must strive to live faithfully in Christ in every scenario that life presents to us, and be the redeemed people that Christ calls us to be at all times.
In a final, vivid image, God warns those who forget Him that His justice will tear them to pieces (vs. 22), but the specter of His judgment is not the final word. Verse 23a exhorts the ritualist to offer true praise that glorifies God: “He who sacrifices a thanksgiving glorifies Me.” A literal sacrifice may be in view but the wording suggests an offering of pure, heartfelt praise, such as we are called to give in Hebrews 13:15. Verse 23b exhorts the morally duplicitous to have a constancy of faith: “To him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.” Salvation is not a good conduct award; the Bible repeatedly and consistently tells us that it is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The concluding point of Psalm 50 is that those who truly seek to worship God sincerely and strive to be sanctified consistently are those who have their faith confirmed and their assurance of salvation strengthened.