The underlying message from Psalm 50 is to recognise that justice flows from an acceptance of divine principles and influence. The message is clothed in a vision of God speaking forth in awesome drama to call, “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, for sincerity in the faithful:
4 God calls to the heavens above and to the earth, to witness the judgement of the people: 5 ‘Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’ 6 The heavens declare the rightness of God's cause ...
We hear this call, accompanied by “a devouring fire and a mighty tempest all around”, in the Lectionary reading of the first six verses. However, the full meaning of the whole song emerges while reading on to hear what Asaph, the psalmist in this case, has to say by way of explanation.
Asaph, whose poems were much informed by Hebrew history, was steeped in the practices of sacrifice for forgiveness and mercy, rituals from burnt offerings to the passover lamb. Here he is taking a swipe at the whole system.
Asaph was perhaps also thinking of the Israelites in the wilderness, melting down their gold rings to create a golden calf as a god they could follow. (Exodus 32) Moses had just popped out to the phone box up the mountain. He must have taken his time. Impatience took over and the people got on with their own superstitions.
It’s easy to read this story dismissively; what were they thinking? But today we see superstition and conspiracy theories alive and well. Humans clearly have the capacity to believe lies in the face of all the best evidence; behaviour can be driven by fancies rather than logic; party politics empoverish policy.
Asaph goes on in the verses beyond the lectionary reading to expose dangers in all religious observance: insincere and untruthful practices; the weaknesses of ritual alone; traditional sacrifices that look impressive but are not rooted in penitence; the false tongue; thoughtless recitation, and generally just going through the motions. And so the punchline, presaged in verse 14 and familiar from modern liturgical quotes, seals the deal:
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honour me; to those who go the right way I will show salvation.
The psalms convey a sense of freedom from burdens, an interesting undercurrent detected in the third century CE by commentator and theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who opined:
David gave the Hebrews psalmody. This abrogated Moses’ sacrificial system and introduced a new form of jubilant praise.
Asaph in this psalm uses stick and carrot, threat and reward, and impassioned poetry to catch our attention. He encourages adherence to justice and the honest ways outlined in scripture, later summarised in Jesus call for love for God and neighbour. These are hardly new ideas in the Psalter but ones that need constantly refreshing in a gullible world.
Choosing a song that includes the idea of this last verse is not strictly required by the Lectionary selection; but settings in Psalms for All Seasons (50B and 50C) home in on the sacrifice of thanksgiving.
So a typically tuneful and nicely harmonised setting from the Iona Community is our first choice for the commissioning of a new Woden Valley congregation, whose roots have been to value social justice and meaningful worship over ritual and repetition. The refrain in Psalms for All Seasons 50C responds:
Let the giving of thanks be our sacrifice O Lord.
Sometimes, particularly when rehearsals are impeded by public health strictures, simplicity is the key. For this service, while it would be preferable to gather singers and musicians from both amalgamating congregations, the psalm will be presented by a lone cantor with minimal instrumental accompaniment. Here, for example is the verse tune accompanied by double bass.
The beauty of this song, in which we can sense the creative hand of John Bell, is enhanced by the supporting harmonies, here sketched in outline by the two parts. On the surface, it’s a plain vanilla I-IV-V routine, majors, minors or sevenths to taste. The tune repeats precisely, but the bass line leads the second part into delightfully fresh territory by taking a quite different path. The contrast is enhanced by having the bass play the tenor part in the first two bars, which in the original Iona Community composition are anchored on an E pedal. The bass therefore follows gentle but determined descending then ascending lines. The bare notes sound like this: