‘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.
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, who opined:
David gave the Hebrews psalmody. This abrogated Moses’ sacrificial system and introduced a new form of jubilant praise.Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome, Exposition of the Psalms
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.
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 complements the tones provided.