Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Got Gratitude?: An Exposition of Psalm 50

A few weeks ago I wrote an exposition paper on Psalm 50 for a class I was taking at seminary. I found both the studying and writing of it to be a large blessing. I have pasted the paper below for your own edification. It might be difficult to follow without a Bible by your side as you read it. If the exposition part of the paper proves to be difficult, skip down to the last part of the paper (the section entitled Theological Significance). This part of the paper is easy to read and it contains the major theological and practical points of the passage. Anyway, I hope you find it to be as encouraging as I did. Enjoy!


Exposition of the Text

I. Historical Setting

Psalm 50 is the first of twelve psalms which bear the superscription, “A Psalm of Asaph.” Although not much can be inferred from this superscription, it is possible to gain an understanding of who the sons of Asaph are from the Old Testament. Michael D. Goulder considers Asaph to be “David’s senior musician.”1 David appointed two of Asaph’s sons, Heman and Jeduthun, to the “ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres, and cymbals” (1 Chr 25:1). Thus, Asaph and his children were worship leaders at the temple.

Goulder postulates that the Psalms of Asaph were all written in Bethel somewhere in the 720s b.c. during a time of national crisis,2 however Psalm 50 neither reflects nor rules out this hypothesis. C. Hassell Bullock says, “In view of the long and continued service of these temple servants, we cannot be absolutely sure when these psalms were composed.”3 Because the date cannot be ascertained, it is nearly impossible to read information from outside sources into the psalm. Whatever background information there is to Psalm 50 must be gained from internal evidence.

Psalm 50 is not easily categorized. L. C. Allen suggests that it “is a literary tapestry in which stylistic, thematic and form critical patterns have been articulately interwoven.”4 Willem A. VanGemeren accurately identifies the following features in the psalm: “theophany, accusation, warning, and invitation to repent.”5 Samuel L. Terrien is most accurate in identifying it as a “prophetic oracle.”6

II. Literary Analysis

Yahweh summons his people for judgment (50:1-6)

Although Psalm 50 may not strictly adhere to a certain style, it certainly does have a unified message. Artur Weiser correctly identifies the central concern of the psalmist, “God himself appears to sit in judgment on the overestimation of the sacrifices in the cult.”7 The psalm begins with what has been considered by many commentators to be “theophanic language.”8 In essence, God has appeared in his resplendent glory to call his people to account for both their theological immaturity and their lack of faithfulness to his covenant. VanGemeren suggests that Yahweh primarily indicts Israel for their formalism and hypocrisy.9 The psalmist uses three different names for Yahweh in vs. 1: el (The mighty one), elohim (God), and Yahweh (the Lord). Robert Davidson accurately defines the terms and communicates the significance of the psalmist’s use of all three in direct succession:

    el, an old Semitic term for deity and the name of the supreme god in the Canaanite pantheon… elohim, the generic word for deity in Hebrew; and “Yahweh,” the personal name of the God of Israel… The bringing together of these three divine names… probably serves to underline the awesome majesty of the God who comes to his people.10

While VanGemeren has identified the summons of the earth in vs. 1 as an indication of a universal covenant that God has made with the earth,11 John Eaton is most likely correct in understanding that the earth is called forth in order to be a witness to the covenant infidelity of the Israelites.12 After all, not only is Israel the only one rebuked in the context, but the earth is summoned as a witness against Israel on other occasions (see Deut 31:28 and Isa 1:2).

The Psalmist, in 50:2-3, does everything he can to present Yahweh as the judge who is not to be taken lightly. First, he is pictured as coming from Zion. In the Scriptures Zion is associated with both the temple of Yahweh and the city of Jerusalem. The reference to Zion is a metaphorical way of referring to the throne of Yahweh—after all, his presence was manifested above the mercy seat in the temple which was in Jerusalem.13 The psalmist’s words are purposed to create a posture of humility, fear, and silence. He wants the Israelites to know that the King has left his throne for the purpose of bringing a charge against them. He is further pictured in terms of beauty and radiance with a fire going before him and a storm raging around him (50:2-3). The imagery used by the psalmist is almost contradictory. The purpose of this imagery is not to detail specific aspects of who God is, rather it is to present the Lord, the one who is about to bring the charge, as the one who towers over any awe-inspiring image man may conjure up—he must be taken seriously. Weiser may be correct in associating this imagery with Israel’s experience with God at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:10-15).14

Once again Yahweh summons the earth to be a witness against Israel, but this time he calls forth the heavens as well (50:4). One wonders whether this could be Yahweh’s way of fulfilling the law he laid forth in Deut 19:15 regarding the need for two or three witnesses for the purpose of conviction. It almost appears as if the Psalmist is trying to create a court room scene. Yahweh has come from his throne, summoned his witnesses, and sent for the culprit.

The psalmist then exposes those whom the Lord is about to convict. They are ironically identified as “my consecrated ones” and “those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (50:5). Weiser says,

    It is precisely his own people whom God has the right to call to account because they are under a special obligation to him as a result of the covenant which they solemnly made with him by sacrifice (Ex. 24:4 ff.). The phrase ‘my godly ones’ is also to be understood as pointing in the same direction, since it addresses the members of the people of God on account of their special virtues but on the strength of their responsibility, which follows from their relationship with God.15

Yahweh, in 50:6 is identified as the righteous judge. VanGemeren suggests that Yahweh’s judgment is righteous in that he will “order everything on earth in accordance with his will.”16 In other words, he will judge that which is opposed to his will so that it might conform to it.

Israel’s Misuse of the Sacrificial System (50:7-15)

The psalmist, it appears, continues to speak of God’s encounter with Israel as if it were a courtroom session. In 50:1-6 God identified himself as the judge, sent for his two witnesses, and identified the culprit. Now, here in 50:7, God orders the court in session by calling the convicted to attention. The rebuke set forth by Yahweh in this section of the psalm can only be fully appreciated in front of the backdrop of 50:1-6. The Israelite’s main problem was the result of an insufficient view of God and his character—they did not see him as “God, your God” and therefore they did not take him nor his word seriously. Weiser says,

    The tremendous background of the theophany produced such an impression of God’s power and superiority that the people’s fundamental mistake in their behaviour at the sacrificial cult and in their moral conduct first became clear and can now be comprehended as a denial to the sovereign God of his due. 17

Before explaining to them the reason for their condemnation, he first wants to clarify the reasons for which they are not being judged. Thus, in much the same way that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their neglect of justice, mercy, and faithfulness for the sake of other commands which made them look better in the public eye, and then says, “you should have done the former without neglecting the latter” (Matt 23:23), Yahweh wanted his people to understand that his issue with their sacrificial offerings had nothing to do with the act of offering itself. Rather, his issue with their offerings was directly linked to their attitude, mindset, and commitment to Yahweh.

Here in 50:8-15 Yahweh confronts a theological error of the Israelites and its consequent results. The Israelites problem could have been the result of the infiltration of Canaanite theology and practices into their worship of Yahweh.18 Canaanite idolatry was, in many ways, a religion of equality: the idol worshipper would fulfill a certain need for the needy idol, which then put the idol in a position where he was expected to fulfill one of the needs of the needy idol worshipper. The problem with bringing this paradigm into the worship of Yahweh is that he has never had a need. However, the Israelites actually thought that God was in need of their sacrifices. Weiser helpfully suggests that their “cardinal mistake is, in spite of all their religious zeal, a lack of respect for God.”19 They had it in their minds that God was in desperate need of their sacrifices. They felt that they were, in the words of Eaton, “obligating God in some way.”20 They were making him their debtor.

However, the Lord rails against them for their preposterous thinking. They actually thought that Yahweh, the one who created them, would starve if they discontinued their sacrificial duties. Yahweh reminds them that if he were hungry he would not tell them because he, by right of his creatorship, owns everything in the world, including all the animals (50:12). In fact, Richard Whitekettle has suggested that the list of animals in 50:10-11 represent a truncated way of setting forth an exhaustive list of all of the animals, including those which are not offered upon the altar. His conclusion is that God “knows or owns all animals.”21 Thus, the Israelites were not scratching God’s back by presenting their offerings. Rather, the sacrificial system was set up precisely because of their great need and God’s overflowing abundance which alone was sufficient to meet that need. The Israelites were in need of understanding that the only reason God set up the sacrificial system in the first place was because of his self-sufficient, independent nature.

God responds to their wrong-headed pride by exhorting them to “offer a thank offering” (50:14). VanGemeren suggests, “The ‘thank offerings’ and ‘vows’ (i.e., votive offerings) belong to the category of voluntary offerings, in which the offerers shared by eating from the offering (cf. Lev 7:12; 22:29).”22 He then goes on, however, to suggest that the emphasis of Yahweh’s exhortation has less to do with the specific kind of offering than with the motive and heart attitude of the offerer: “Instead of presenting ‘dedicatory offerings’ in a spirit of pride, the people had to learn that the ‘Most High’ invites them for a banquet to enjoy his presence.”23 In a similar vein, Davidson suggests that “sacrifices are meaningless unless they are the expression of inner thanksgiving for the way God has enriched life and of the vows or promises made to God which must be kept.”24 The thanksgiving offering, thus, at its foundation, is an offering which arises out of a recognition of both the self-sufficiency of God and the need that humans have of the sustenance, redemption, and life which God alone can offer. It is this sort of offering, along with its humble and needy posture, which the Israelites were failing to bring to God.

God concludes his first charge with a logical exhortation. The Israelites were neither seeing themselves as helpless beggars nor God as a compassionate savior, and therefore they were not dependently crying out to him in the midst of their trouble. He wants them to know, however, that if they humble themselves by acknowledge their need and his self-sufficiency, he will deliver them in time of need. The sacrifices and prayers which the Lord desires and responds to are those which flow out of a needy heart of gratitude. Weiser helpfully comments on 50:15:

    The people are to realize to what large extent they depend on God in everything; they are to give expression to their recognition of his supreme power and saving will (which is in no need of first being persuaded by sacrifices) by adopting the attitude which alone befits man in his relationship with God—that of prayer.25

Charge 2: Israel’s lack of obedience (50:16-21)

Although Davidson suggests that the Psalmist, in 50:16-21, is turning away from those addressed in vv. 7-15 in order to speak to another group of people, the wicked,26 this is probably not the case. The “But” in 50:16 suggests that the author is about to contrast those who are described as acceptable to God in vv. 14-15 with the “wicked.” Those who are identified as “the wicked” in 50:16 are much like those addressed in the preceding section. After all, the wicked are apparently committed to the formal externalities of the law: “what right have you to recite my laws, or take my covenant on your lips” (50:16 cf. 50:8). Yahweh’s issue with the wicked is not that they have neglected the sacrificial cultus altogether, rather he is fed up with the wicked for hypocritically using religion as a way of parading their religiosity and righteousness. Weiser says, “the superficial appropriation of the commandments, learning them by heart, reciting them and boasting of knowing and keeping them… has been a symptom of the fact that the religious life of the people of Israel has become superficial.”27 The wicked are those who will work all day to look better than the next man by memorizing the law, but will not take a second out of his day to obey the law he has memorized. As S. Edward Tesh and Walter D. Zorn have said, “They give lip service to the word of God, but refuse to be guided by its teachings.”28

Yahweh accuses the wicked of hating and disregarding his law in 50:17, and then describes what he means by this in vv. 18-20. The charges brought against the wicked in vv. 18-20 have to do with thievery, adultery, and slander. VanGemeren suggests that the “particular charges are representative of the whole Decalogue.”29 In front of the backdrop of their sin Yahweh issues a stern warning: “I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face” (50:21). Interestingly, Yahweh accuses the wicked of misunderstanding his character in two ways: (1) they either question his justice or presume upon his grace, and (2) they deemed God to be just like them. Ultimately, the wicked thought that God’s silence meant that he was not going to do anything about their lawlessness. Weiser helpfully explains the heart of Yahweh’s rebuke:

    It is an anthropomorphizing of God to think that the absence of an immediate retribution, which they conceive in human terms, and God’s silence justify their equating their own will with the will of God and holding that God is one like themselves. This is their actual ‘sin’. For they always see God only in that light in which he appears to be useful to them and not as he really is, as the One whose claim and command are unconditionally valid.30

Yahweh’s Final Plea (50:22-23)

Yahweh urges his wicked covenant people to consider their relationship to him. He lays before them two options: they can either (1) obey his word with a grateful heart and receive salvation (50:23), or (2) ignore his word and be thoroughly judged (50:22). Here, in 50:23, it is thanksgiving itself, rather than a votive offering, which is offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.

III. Theological Message

Two primary theological emphases can be clearly seen in Psalm 50: (1) the aseity of God and (2) the consequent posture of worship. D. A. Carson correctly connects Psalm 50 with Acts 17:25. Carson says,

    This passage not only insists that God sustains life and rules providentially, but that he is characterized by aseity… This fine word has largely dropped out of theological discussion… It means that God is so independent that he does not need us. We cannot give him anything he lacks or wheedle something out of him by cajoling him.31

Thus, while God expects, honors, delights in, and gets joy from worship of and service for him, Christians are to never think that he needs their worship or service. In fact, according Malachi 1:10, God would rather have no worship than worship which does not flow forth from a reverential heart of thanksgiving. The foundational problem with the Israelites in Psalm 50 is that they saw God as their lowly and needy servant; they were intent on following him as long as it benefited them in the public square. There really is no difference between the Israelites in Psalm 50 and the Pharisees in both Matt 5-7 and 23. God is to be neither pitied nor manipulated.

In conclusion, John R. W. Stott says,

    It is absurd… to suppose that he who sustains life should himself need to be sustained, that he who supplies our need should himself need our supply. Any attempt to tame or domesticate God, to reduce him to the level of a household pet dependent on us for food and shelter, is again a ridiculous reversal of roles. We depend upon God; he does not depend upon us.32


[1] Michael D. Goulder, The Psalms of Asaph and the Pentateuch (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 15.

[2] Ibid., 35-36.

[3] C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 63.

[4] L. C. Allen, “Structure and Meaning in Psalm 150,” Vox Evangelica 14 (1984): 33.

[5] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 372

[6] Samuel L. Terrien, The Psalms (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 396.

[7] Artur Weiser, Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2000), 393.

[8] James D. G. Dunn and John William Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 393.

[9] VanGemeren, Psalms, 372.

[10] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 163.

[11] Vangemeren, Psalms, 373.

[12] John Eaton, The Psalms (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2003), 202.

[13] VanGemeren, Psalms, 355.

[14] Weiser, Psalms, 395.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1994), 852.

[17] Weiser, Psalms, 396.

[18] VanGemeren, Psalms, 852.

[19] Weiser, Psalms, 396.

[20] Eaton, Psalms, 203.

[21] Richard Whitekettle, “Bugs, Bunny, or Boar?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67, no. 2 (2005): 263.

[22] VanGemeren, Psalms, 376.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Davidson, The Vitality of Worship, 164-65.

[25] Weiser, Psalms, 397.

[26] Davidson, The Vitality of Worship, 165.

[27] Weiser, Psalms, 398.

[28] S. Edward Tesh and Walter D. Zorn, Psalms (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 1999), 361.

[29] VanGemeren, Psalms, 377.

[30] Weiser, Psalms, 399.

[31] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 500.

[32] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 285.

1 comment:

Luke Snowden said...


Thanks for this post, I love reading your papers! As you are aware I am presently reading Owen's "Death of Death." Book II, Chapter II is on the subject of Christ's sacrfice as not meeting a need in God, but meeting our need.

If you haven't read it, do so, it goes along with this paper you wrote so well. (Pages 91-96 in the book)