Gleanings From the Text
The Larger Picture:
This six-verse pericope introduces a prophetic psalm of judgment (see Mays), whose later verses lay out specific charges against God’s chosen people. Psalm 50 goes beyond rebuke and the threat of punishment, directing the faithful to reject mechanical worship and corrupt behavior and to offer sincere thanksgiving and praise for their creator. In this context, it has been pointed out that Psalm 51’s prayer for cleansing and pardon serves as an appropriate confession of sin and commitment to reform along the lines mapped out in Psalm 50 (see Schaefer).
Ecological setting: God calls the entire natural world to witness in the case. The scope of creation’s witness extends from sunrise to sunset (v.1) and from the height of the heavens down to the earth (v.4). Later in the psalm (vv. 10-12), it is pointed out that God owns all of creation, and does not need human sacrifice.
God is not an outsider: It is from within this natural context that God’s glory shines forth in Zion (v. 2) (see “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, http://www.bartleby.com/122/7.html). God uses the forces of nature (devouring fire, whirling tempest) not only to demonstrate power but also to communicate (does not keep silent) (v.3). It even appears that God requires this natural context “that he may judge” God’s people (v.4). It is the heavens that “declare [God’s] righteousness” – witnessing to God’s appropriate role as judge (v.6)
God’s judgment is intimate: The verb translated as “summons” in v.1 of the NRSV accurately reflects the psalm’s legal setting, but that same verb is more commonly translated simply as “calls to,” as in v.4. The God-that-summons calls out personally, “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me…” (v. 5) Further, the verb translated “judge” in v. 4 may carry the connotation of “pleading a case” in behalf of someone (see BDB). If a courtroom scene is depicted by Psalm 50, it is a family council where the judge knows everyone and prefers reformed behavior to vengeful punishment.
Food for Thought
Lectionary readings consistently snip out the hard words of the psalms, leaving only words of praise. There is nothing wrong with praise! However, Psalm 50 demonstrates that God requires worshipers to struggle with the significance of their worship and to move away from mechanically tossed-off prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. By expurgating the hard facts laid out in later verses of Psalm 50, could the lectionary actually contribute to the very type of behavior against which we are being warned?
Sink Your Teeth Into This
Years ago, a new second-career student came to my office to discuss plans for life at seminary. The student remarked that he had already completed a successful career, and was now able to “give something back to God.” At the time, I thought of the parable of the rich young ruler, and wondered if the student knew exactly how much he might need to give up. Today’s work with Psalm 50 brings that past conversation to mind yet again. We have many high achievers at Union-PSCE, and it is a delight to see their varied gifts being polished to serve the church. At the same time, Psalm 50 offers a strong and helpful reminder that each of us owes everything – property, family, personal attributes, the very ground we stand on – to God. We have nothing of our own to give to God – except our gratitude. The astonishing good news is that gratitude is exactly what God has always wanted.
Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius, The New Hebrew and English Lexicon, 1979. p. 192a.
Mays, James L., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Psalms, John Knox Press, 1994. p. 194
Schaefer, Konrad, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry: Psalms, The Liturgical Press, 2001. p. 128.
The registrar of Union-PSCE, Barrows earned her Masters of Divinity degree from the Richmond campus. She works closely with the student body, helping individual students to select their classes and also participating in a wide range of activities including leading chapel worship. Barrows is originally from Salem, Oregon.