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Psalm 50 Biblical Commentary:
False religion is a significant theme of both Old and New Testaments. The prophets pronounced judgment on those who claimed to be faithful, but whose lives failed to live up to their claims. The problem most often manifested itself as rote observance of the law without true devotion to God or love for people. Jesus confronted the same problem with the scribes and Pharisees. This psalm deals with the same kinds of issues.
- In verses 1-6, the psalmist sets the stage as a courtroom. He calls witnesses from heaven above to earth below to serve as witnesses.
- In verses 7-15, God outlines the problem. The people have assumed that their sacrifices have satisfied their obligation to God, but God doesn’t need their sacrifices. He is looking for honest sacrifices of thanksgiving.
- In verses 16-21 (not in the lectionary readings), God outlines some of their sins: Rejecting instruction, thievery, adultery, evil, deceit, slander.
- In verses 22-23, God delivers a warning to those who have forgotten God––and he tells them how to achieve salvation. God will honor their sacrifice of thanksgiving with the gift of salvation.
A Psalm by Asaph.
Asaph, the son of Berechiah, was a Levite musician, appointed (along with Heman and Jeduthun) by David to preside “over the service of song in the house of Yahweh” (1 Chronicles 6:31, 39).
David also appointed Asaph as chief over a group of Levites “to minister before the ark of Yahweh, and to celebrate and to thank and praise Yahweh, the God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4-6). Asaph’s sons became important temple musicians (1 Chronicles 25:1).
The superscriptions of Psalms 50 and 73-83 identify Asaph as the author.
PSALM 50:1-6. YAHWEH CALLS THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH
1 The Mighty One, God, Yahweh, speaks,
and calls the earth from sunrise to sunset.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes, and does not keep silent.
A fire devours before him.
It is very stormy around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above,
to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather my saints together to me,
those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
6 The heavens shall declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.
“The Mighty One, God, (Hebrew: el elohim) Yahweh (Hebrew: YHWH) speaks” (v. 1a). By far the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh (YHWH), which means “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)––but elohim is the next most common. El means god (note the small g), and can be used for any god. Elohim is plural, so it can apply to any gods. However, when used to refer to Yahweh, as in this verse, the usage is called “the intensive plural” or “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all that constitutes deity is summed in Yahweh.
In this verse, the psalmist piles one exalted name upon the other as a way of honoring God, much as royalty often identities itself with multiple names as a way of establishing authority. By doing this, the psalmist not only honors Yahweh, but also signals the auspicious nature of Yahweh’s speech.
“and calls the earth from sunrise to sunset” (v. 1b). Yahweh summons all the people of the earth, from sunrise to sunset––from east to west––from one edge of the world to the other (The people of the psalmist’s day thought that the world was flat and was bounded by edges).
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth” (v. 2). Zion is Mount Zion, the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. In the Jerusalem temple, God’s throne sat atop the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, Zion was God’s dwelling place.
God’s perfect beauty shines forth from Zion.
“Our God comes, and does not keep silent.
A fire devours before him.
It is very stormy around him” (v. 3). God’s perfect beauty shine forth from Zion, but he also comes in judgment (v. 4).
Yahweh is first described as appearing as a devouring fire in Exodus 24:17, when Moses met with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. In that case, Yahweh’s glory had the fearsome appearance of a devouring fire which demands Moses’ deep reverence and respect. But here the psalmist is speaking of a devouring fire that goes before Yahweh. That is a more fearsome prospect, because it was more than the appearance of fire. It was a fire that would devour the unfaithful.
The psalmist also portrays Yahweh as surrounded by a storm.
People find both fire and storm frightening, because we have little control over either. Both fires and storms can be highly destructive and life threatening.
“He calls to the heavens above,
to the earth, that he may judge his people” (v. 4). In verse 1b, Yahweh called all the earth from sunrise to sunset––from one edge of the earth to the other. Now he calls both heaven and earth to witness the judgment of his people.
“his people” would be Israel, his covenant people. They are especially liable to judgment, because it is to them that God has revealed himself. It is to them that he has given his law. It is to them that the prophets have spoken. They know what God wants.
“Gather my saints (Hebrew: hasid) together to me,
those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (v. 5). The hasid (saints) are those whom Yahweh has set apart to be his people––those who enjoy a special relationship with Yahweh by virtue of the covenants established by Yahweh with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants.
“The heavens shall declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge” (v. 6). When the psalmist speaks of the heavens declaring his righteousness, he means heavenly beings––those whose abode is the heavens. These heavenly beings can testify to the righteousness of Yahweh’s judgment over his covenant people.
Selah. this seems to be a musical notation, perhaps noting the end of a stanza.
PSALM 50:7-15. OFFER THE SACRIFICE OF THANKSGIVING
7 “Hear, my people, and I will speak;
Israel, and I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
8 I don’t rebuke you for your sacrifices.
Your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I have no need for a bull from your stall,
nor male goats from your pens.
10 For every animal of the forest is mine,
and the livestock on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the mountains.
The wild animals of the field are mine.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
13 Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble.
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
“Hear, my people, and I will speak, Israel” (v. 7a). This is more than an invitation to listen. It is a call to hear and pay attention. It introduces a warning to Israel, Yahweh’s covenant nation.
“and I will testify (Hebrew: ‘ud) against you” (v. 7b). Yahweh warns that he will testify against Israel. Yahweh, of course, is an unimpeachable witness. No one can refute his testimony.
“I am God (Hebrew: elohim), your God” (v. 7c). For the meaning of elohim, see the comments above on verse 1a.
First, Yahweh announces that he is God. Then he makes it more specific––more personal. He is Israel’s God. Israel has been his covenant people since the time of Abraham, and nothing has happened to change that. Yahweh is mightily displeased with Israel, but his displeasure doesn’t repeal his covenant with them.
“I don’t rebuke (Hebrew: yakah) you for your sacrifices.
Your burnt offerings are continually before me” (v. 8). The word yakah has a number of meanings. The ones appropriate to this context are rebuke, convict, judge, and reprove. Yahweh is not rebuking the Israelites for offering sacrifices. He, after all, gave the law that required sacrifices, and they are complying with that law. Yahweh sees their burnt offerings continually. That isn’t the problem.
“I have no need for a bull from your stall,
nor male goats from your pens” (v. 9). Yahweh doesn’t need their sacrifices of bulls and goats. However, he feels a need to state this obvious fact, which suggests that the Israelites felt that they were doing something significant for Yahweh by offering sacrifices.
“For every animal of the forest is mine,
and the livestock on a thousand hills.
“I know all the birds of the mountains.
The wild animals of the field are mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it” (vv. 10-12). If Yahweh needed a bull or goat or animal of any sort, he could reach out and get one. They all belong to him.
Most Israelites would own only a few livestock. Wealthy people might own a few hundred or even a few thousand cattle––but Yahweh owns them all. The Israelites aren’t satisfying Yahweh’s hunger needs when they offer their sacrifices. They shouldn’t imagine that their Yahweh is somehow dependent on their offerings. No! Yahweh instituted the sacrificial system for Israel’s benefit, not his own.
“Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?” (v. 13). Yahweh doesn’t need bulls and goats for food. The Israelites have nothing that Yahweh requires to slake his hunger.
“Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Hebrew: todah) (v. 14a). The word todah means thanksgiving or praise. A sacrifice of thanksgiving would involve thanksgiving and praise in a public setting––in the temple. Presumably however, an individual could also offer thanksgiving and praise in other settings.
“Pay your vows to the Most High” (v. 14b). A vow is a solemn promise to God, often made as part of a bargain where the petitioner promises a specific action in return for God’s blessing.
Yahweh’s call to pay their vows suggests that they have been making promises to Yahweh that they have failed to keep. Yahweh calls them to correct that behavior.
“Call on me in the day of trouble.
I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (v. 15). Yahweh reminds them that they can call on him to deliver them from trouble. They have a long history of doing that. Yahweh delivered them from slavery in Egypt. He delivered them from the Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea. He delivered them from the Philistines––from the giant Goliath. The list goes on and on.
So Yahweh is worthy of their praise. He has done his part, and will continue to do. Their proper response is to honor him.
PSALM 50:16-21. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
16 But to the wicked God says,
“What right do you have to declare my statutes,
that you have taken my covenant on your lips,
17 since you hate instruction,
and throw my words behind you?
18 When you saw a thief, you consented with him,
and have participated with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth to evil.
Your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your brother.
You slander your own mother’s son.
21 You have done these things, and I kept silent.
You thought that I was just like you.
I will rebuke you, and accuse you in front of your eyes.
In these verses, Yahweh says that the wicked have voided their access to his statutes and covenant. They have no right to consider themselves in relationship with Yahweh. They hate his instruction, which tells them what they may and may not do. They want no interference from Torah law. They want to do what they want to do when they want to do it.
Furthermore, they have allied themselves with thieves and adulterers. They speak evil and deceit, even against their brothers––their mothers’ sons. Their moral lapse knows no bounds.
When Yahweh withheld his judgment for their misdeeds, they began to think of him as ordinary––like themselves. Now he will rebuke them––accuse them––show them the error of their ways.
PSALM 50:22-23. CONSIDER THIS
22 “Now consider this, you who forget God,
lest I tear you into pieces, and there be none tso deliver.
23 Whoever offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifies me,
and prepares his way so that I will show God’s salvation to him.”
In these verses, Yahweh addresses two groups of people: The unfaithful (v. 22) and the faithful (v. 23). He outlines the consequences of the behavior of each group.
“Now consider this, you who forget God” (v. 22a). Yahweh is speaking to people to whom he has given the law and the prophets, so they know what Yahweh expects of them. However, they have forgotten––have put him out of mind––so that they can ignore what he has told them to do.
“lest I tear you into pieces, and there be none to deliver” (v. 22b). This is a devastating judgment. If Yahweh should tear them into pieces, as a lion might dismember its prey, there would be none to deliver them––none to save them. Their situation would be hopeless.
“Whoever offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifies (Hebrew: todah) me” (v. 23a). See the comments above on verse 14a for the meaning of todah.
“and prepares (Hebrew: sum) his way (Hebrew: derek) so that I will show God’s salvation to him” (v. 23b). The word sum (prepares) has many meanings, but the basic meaning is to put something in place. The word derek (way) is often used for a pathway or a road. In this verse, the psalmist is speaking of the person’s life-journey. This is a promise that the person who structures his/her life-journey to receive God’s salvation will, indeed, receive it.
God’s salvation can also mean many things:
- It can mean salvation to eternal life, but probably wouldn’t mean that to the psalmist. The people of his time did not have the well-developed understanding of eternal life that we find in the New Testament.
- It could mean salvation from one’s enemies.
- It could mean salvation from one’s own worst impulses.
- In this verse, it would mean the salvation that the person (or Israel) needed.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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