Psalm 50: The sacrifice of thanksgiving

‘The heavens declare the rightness, for God is judge’ (6)

Psalm 50 by Asaph is quite long, though Lectionary selections concentrate on the first half of the song. This part boils down to a vibrant description of divine eminence, power and identification with the people. It describes a covenant of faithfulness, calling for honesty in worship, not just duty sacrifices or keeping up appearances.

Mountains and seas

The poem rings of dramatic images of heaven-and-earth, prophets-past-and-future on a high mountain, such as those to be found in 2 Kings 2 and the Transfiguration (Mark 9).

The last section takes ‘the wicked’ to task, implying that they ‘recite my statutes’ but act in contravention of those principles. This, according to Isaac Everett, is a failing that Voltaire alluded to when he wrote: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned the favour.”

A good setting is found in No 50B and C in Psalms for All Seasons. This simple refrain is from The Iona Community, a distributed movement based in Scotland whose approach and attractive music is widely appreciated. PFAS describes the psalm as ‘a call to genuine worship with integrity’ (p. 315). The people’s response is:

Let the giving of thanks be our sacrifice to God (23)

Being based on the last verse, these words are not actually in the lectionary selection. This should be no barrier; it’s very appropriate — a free bonus verse! As to these verses, 50B and the next setting 50C have almost identical refrains but treat the verses differently. In the former, verses are chanted by cantors to a tone: the latter offers paraphrased verses in SATB to a nice tune that is quite close to one of the tones provided.

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