In looking together at these folksongs of faith we are sharing the experiences of men and women of the past who have found their way through difficulties and troubles, through trials and heart aches, by faith in a living God who has delivered them. To help others they have put their experiences into song and thus we have the psalms. How helpful they can be when we are going through times of difficulty! But not only times of difficulty but they are also for times of rejoicing because they express so beautifully the exultation of the soul which has found deliverance in God.
We are now turning to another of these folksongs, Psalm 50. Its theme is a familiar one among folksongs. Those of you who are acquainted with the ballads and folksongs of America know that they frequently center around courtrooms, trials, juries (rigged or otherwise), prisons, policemen and judges. You get a great deal of this in folksongs and it is the theme also of this fiftieth Psalm. It is a courtroom scene and the Psalmist is recreating in his own experience when God judges his people. If we were to put this in the street jargon of today we should entitle it, "When God Busted Me."
Notice that it is inscribed as a psalm of Asaph. Asaph was the sweet singer who put these songs to music and sang in David's court. This psalm is from his pen though it reflects the experience of many believers. Like all courtroom scenes it begins with a summons.
The Mighty One, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth... (Psalms 50:1a RSV)
Some time ago my doorbell rang on a Saturday morning. When I went to the door, there stood a man I had never seen before. He did not say a word but handed me a piece of paper, turned around, and walked down the driveway. I stood there with the paper in my hands not knowing quite what it was all about. When I went inside and opened the paper I saw that it was a summons to appear in court. It affected me strangely. I was not quite sure what to do. I felt a mingled sense of fear and awe. I wanted to hide, and wondered if it would not be better just to go back to bed and start all over again.
Perhaps this was the reaction of the Psalmist when this great and impressive summons rang out. It is a very impressive scene that is described here as the Psalmist pictures the courtroom as the judge enters and the people are summoned to the bar.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes, he does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
round about him a mighty tempest.
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
"Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!"
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge! (Psalms 50:2-6 RSV)
The most awesome thing about this description is the last words, "God himself is judge!" This is a courtroom in which God sits to judge his people. In verse one he describes himself in a three-fold way: the Mighty One, God, the Lord. In Hebrew they are three names: El, Elohim, Jehovah. These three names are most impressive for they gather up the major characteristics of God. He is first, El, the Mighty One, the All-powerful One, the One of authority and strength. Then he is Elohim, the One of majesty, of greatness, the Supreme One, sovereign over all else. But, as Jehovah, he is the God of mercy, the One who graciously enters into full understanding of his people's needs. Thus in this scene we have God the Judge introducing himself to us as God of Might, Majesty, and Mercy, holding all three characteristics in perfect balance. He is the One of authority, of sovereignty and majesty, but also the One of grace, love, and tender concern.
Now it is important to note that this judge comes not from Sinai but from Zion.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth. (Psalms 50:2 RSV)
Sinai, of course, was where the Law was given. It was accompanied with thunderous judgment, with lightnings and the voice of a trumpet which waxed louder and louder until the people could not stand it. They cried out to Moses, "You speak to us, ... but let not God speak to us lest we die!" (Exodus 20:19 RSV). But here it is no longer Sinai but Zion. Zion is Jerusalem and stands for the mercy of God, the redemptive love of God, the grace of God. God is judging, but he is judging in mercy. It is well to remember that as we go on into this psalm. The judgment will be realistic but it will not be harsh.
Because Zion refers to Jerusalem there have been some commentators who have taken this psalm to be a description of the second coming when the Lord Jesus Christ shall return to earth in power and great glory, (as he himself described it in Matthew 25), and will sit on his throne and gather the nations before him to judge them. That judgment is vividly detailed in Matthew 25. Now, it is true that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth. When he came the first time he came in weakness and humility, born in a cold and dirty cave on the side of a hill in Bethlehem. There was no pomp, no circumstance, no power. But, when he comes again, he will come in great glory to judge the peoples of earth as they are summoned before him. This psalm is, in my judgment, a very beautiful description in the Old Testament of that event which is recorded in the New Testament. It will occur when Jesus Christ comes again. But it would be a great mistake to take the psalm as limited only to that event. As often happens with many scriptural passages we have here a dual application. It not only looks forward to the time when, literally and physically, Christ will return to judge his people, but it is also describing a judgment that is going on right now.
This is indicated for us in Verse 1 by these words.
The Mighty One, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting. (Psalms 50:1 RSV)
Now that is a daily occurrence. The sun rises every morning and sets every evening. Thus this phrase indicates something that goes on daily. God is daily judging his people. He is sitting among them as a Redeemer-Judge. That is why in Verse 3 the Hebrew says, "Our God comes." Not "is coming" in the future but "keeps coming." He is always coming. We are always living in the presence of God and in the coming of God.
Our God comes, he does not keep silence. (Psalms 50:3a RSV)
Then the psalmist goes on to describe the character of the God who comes to judge his people. Two symbols mark the characteristics of judgment: fire and wind.
...before him is a devouring fire,
round about him a mighty tempest. (Psalms 50:3b RSV)
You who know the New Testament well know that these two symbols are often used to describe God. "Our God is a consuming fire," says the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12:29). And the Spirit of God is in Acts described as a mighty rushing wind. "The wind blows where it desires," said Jesus to Nicodemus, "and you hear the sound thereof, but you cannot tell where it has come from or where it is going. So is he who is born of the Spirit," (John 3:8 RSV). These are highly suggestive symbols. Fire is that which purifies. Purifying power is the concept here. Fire destroys all waste and trash, the garbage of life. As fire God will burn the dross, waste and trash of our lives, the garbage of the soul.
But he is also wind. Wind is in some ways the mightiest force in nature. Some time ago I saw a picture taken after a tornado in the Southwest. It showed some straw that had been caught up in the wind and driven entirely through a telephone pole. If I gave you a weak piece of straw and told you to drive it through a telephone pole you would look at me in amazement. You do not drive straw through a telephone pole. But this straw had been driven through by the force of a mighty wind. Remember on the day of Pentecost when the disciples were gathered there was suddenly the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Caught up in the power of that wind the disciples did things they had never done before. Empowered by the wind of God they went out to do and say things that upset the world of their day. They startled and astonished men by the power that was evidenced among them.
What the Psalmist is telling us is that when God judges he will do two things: he will burn up the trash and garbage of life, and then he will empower us. He will catch us up in the greatness of his strength, and we will be able to do things we never could do before.
Notice, in Verse 5, who it is that is particularly subject to this judgment:
Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice! (Psalms 50:5 RSV)
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people. (Psalms 50:4 RSV)
We are his people, are we not? Of old it was Israel. They are the ones who made a covenant with God by sacrifice. Of course he is referring to the animal sacrifice which Israel offered day by day. These were to reflect the relationship God had with his people. It was a covenant made in blood, in other words a life had been poured out on their behalf. But all these Old Testament sacrifices were but a picture of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one was, in a sense, Christ being offered. But, in Christ, we are the people who have made a covenant with God by sacrifice. We have entered into the benefit of the new arrangement for living made through the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This psalm then is really describing what is going on right in this meeting at this very moment. It pictures God among his people and he has something to say to us. The God who comes from Zion, the God who loves, and who sees things the way they are, desires to speak to us. That is why this section ends with the little word, "Selah." It means, pause, stop, look, listen, think! God the judge is in our midst, God is judging his people. Now the judge speaks,
"Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
I do not reprove you for your sacrifices;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will accept no bull from your house,
nor he-goat from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?" (Psalms 50:7-13 RSV)
What a remarkable piece of irony that is! It has a sardonic twist to it. God is saying, first, "I do not reprove you for your sacrifices," i.e., "there are certain things you are doing which are right." Israel brought every day, punctiliously, the sacrifices which the Law prescribed. God says that is perfectly right, it is proper to do that. "I do not reprove you for that," he says, "there are certain things you are doing which are fundamentally right." But what was wrong was that they thought the act of sacrificing was all God wanted, that for some reason he needed bulls' flesh and goats' blood. It revealed the tremendously low concept of God they held. God is saying to them, "How absurd can you get? Do you really think I am that kind of a God? Do you think I need flesh and blood? Why, I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I own the wild beasts of the forests, the elk, the bison, and all the other animals. Also I know all the birds of the air. They're all mine and I can do with them as I will. If hunger were my motive in asking you to bring sacrifices then I could heap up mountains of flesh. What do you take me for, anyway? A kind of cosmic Meat Grinder?"
Do you see the parallel to this today? Many people come to church and think that God wants them to sing hymns, bow in prayer, utter certain words and go through certain forms, and that is what he is after. How absurd! It is all perfectly right, there is nothing wrong with it, but that is not what he is after. It is not what God desires.
A young pastor came to me this very week to talk to me about his ministry. He said, "Tell me, what is wrong with the evangelical Church today, anyhow?" I have been trying to answer that question for quite a while but, being challenged to put it in a brief form, I had to think it through and answer his question. I said, finally, that I thought two things were wrong with the evangelical Church. There is a lot right about it. Our doctrine is right, it is scriptural. Our emphasis upon the authority of Scripture is right, it is good, it is solid. Our concern lest we get away from the authority of the Bible and the teaching of the Scripture is right. There is nothing wrong with that. But what is wrong with the average evangelical church is first, it is dead! There is no real demonstration of life in many evangelical Christians. Their words are wonderful but their lives leave something greatly to be desired.
Some years ago when Averill Harriman was first appointed Ambassador to France someone said to him, "How's your French?" He said, "Oh, my French is excellent; all but the verbs!" That is a good description of evangelical Christianity. We have wonderful nouns: joy, peace, faith, redemption, salvation, justification. Oh, these nouns! But the verbs -- loving, forgiving, healing, restoring -- that is where we are weak, are we not? That is what God is finding fault with. He says, your sacrifices are fine, but where are your hearts.
The second thing I see wrong with the evangelical Church is its remoteness. It is far removed from life as it is. It tends to withdraw from the really gut issues of life and will not involve itself where people are bleeding, struggling, fighting, and facing terrible problems. We tend to excuse that by saying, "Well, getting in and helping outwardly doesn't solve anything ultimately." Of course, we are quite right about that. That is not how the real solution comes. But it is wrong for us not to be involved. That remoteness is what is turning off so many young people today from the evangelical Church. We do not want to touch anyone, like the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who gathered his robe about him and crossed over to the other side leaving the wounded man without help. So God is judging his people. He is saying, "You observe the form but there is something missing."
Then he speaks very clearly and tells us what is missing,
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High;
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. (Psalms 50:14-15 RSV)
What does God want from us this morning? Well, he does not want mere hymn singing, although that is fine. Nor does he want only prayer, although that too is fine. He does not simply want our attendance here, although that is fine. What he wants is, first, a thankful heart. That is what he seeks, a thankful heart. Each one of us is to offer to him the sacrifice of thanksgiving. A sacrifice is something we put effort into, it costs us. Have you ever asked yourself, why do the Scriptures stress thanksgiving so much? Both in the Old and New Testaments you find the emphasis that above everything else God wants thankfulness. "In everything," says the Apostle Paul, "give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you," (1 Thessalonians 5:18 KJV). Why is this? Well, it is because thanksgiving only comes as a result of having received something. You do not give thanks until you have received something. You only say "Thank you" when somebody has given you something that you did not have yourself. It all comes from another. Therefore thanksgiving is the proper expression of Christianity because Christianity is receiving something constantly from God.
Of course if you have not received anything from God then you have nothing to thank him for. Though you come to the service you really have nothing to say. It is better that you do not come, really, because worship is for those who have received something. God is a realist. He does not want fake thanksgiving. I know there are certain people (and they are awfully hard to live with) who think that Christianity consists of pretending to be thankful. They think it means screwing a smile on your face and going around pretending that troubles do not bother you. That is a most painful form of Christianity. God does not want you to go around shouting, "Hallelujah! I've got cancer!" But there is something about having cancer to be thankful for. That is what he wants you to see. There are aspects of it that no one can possibly enjoy, but there are other aspects which reveal purpose, meaning, and reason. God wants you to see this -- what he can do with that situation, and be thankful. Thanksgiving is the first thing he wants in worship. A thankful heart.
The second thing is, an obedient will. "Pay your vows to the Most High." Notice the kind of obedience it is. It is not something forced upon you; it is something you have chosen for yourself. A vow is something you decide to give, a promise you make because of truth you have seen. You say, "I never saw it like that before. I really ought to do something about it. God helping me, I'm going to do such and such." That is a vow. God says, "I'm not asking you to do things you have not yet learned are important. But when you have vowed something, then do it. Act on it. Obey it." That's the name of the game of Christianity: obeying the truth.
The third thing God wants is a prayerful spirit.
...and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. (Psalms 50:15 RSV)
He wants us to recognize where the source of power is. Power comes from him. I love those opening words of the twenty-seventh psalm:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear? (Psalms 27:1a RSV)
I can just see that Psalmist thrusting his chest out and saying, "I've got the Lord; of whom shall I be afraid?" That was the spirit in which David met Goliath. Here was Goliath, nine feet tall, clad in his armor, his spear like a weaver's beam, threatening and frightening the armies of Israel, rendering them absolutely helpless and hopeless in their fear. But little David comes along and says, "Who is this uncircumcised giant who dares defy the armies of the living God? Who does he think he is? Why, he's nothing!"
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalms 27:1 RSV)
Isn't that great? That is David. How different he is from us. But God is in the midst of his people, and he is pointing these truths out to us. He is burning up the dross. God is a devouring fire and he wants to burn out of us the trash, the garbage, the waste of our life.
Now there is a second class of people God deals with mentioned in Verses 16 and on:
But to the wicked God says:
"What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline,
and you cast my words behind you.
If you see a thief,
you are a friend of his;
and you keep company with adulterers.
You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother's son." (Psalms 50:16-20 RSV)
In every congregation there are not only the superficial, who need to be rebuked and challenged to be real; there are also some who are essentially false, hypocrites, who use all the right words and frame their lives in Christian form, but are basically ungodly, or to use the term here, wicked. That is what wickedness is. It is forgetting that God lives and exists. It is to rule him out of your life, to be ungodly and so, wicked. The judge sees these also. He is here and he sees such who are here this morning. He knows the heart.
They are identified as being wicked by three marks.
First, they hate discipline. They want only their own way. They hate discipline and therefore reject truth. They do not want to hear what is true. They do not recognize any absolutes in life. They want to believe that everything is relative, that you can do whatever you like. They want, basically, their own way at all costs, and they resent any form of restraint or criticism. They hate discipline.
Second, they admire evil and they enjoy the friendship of those who do evil. This is exactly the charge, you remember, which Paul levels against some in Romans 1. They not only admire evil themselves but they "approve those who practice" (Romans 1:28 RSV) evil things. This is what God describes here. If you see a thief, he says, you think he is clever. You admire a man who can cheat someone and get away with it. To you he is a clever man, you admire him for it. You want to be with him and to imitate him. You see an adulterer, someone who lives in open, flagrant, sexual immorality, and you say he's free, and seek him out. You think he is better off than you are who must live under certain restraints. You admire this person who seems to be so free, who has kicked over all the traces, and you want to be like him.
Then, third, the wicked possesses an ungoverned tongue; he says whatever he feels like saying. He has a tongue that lies, which frames deceit, one that cuts down others, slicing away, jabbing at another's reputation. You do this even, says God, to your own brother or sister, or anyone in the family. That, God says, reveals that you are wicked, that you do not own God in your life. You are essentially ungodly, there has been no redemptive change in you, but it is all covered by a religious glaze. Today we have not only Christians, but there are what we might call Christianeers: those who subscribe to the outward forms of Christianity much as they would adopt a political slogan. In every congregation there are Christians and there are Christianeers. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart, but God knows. God is judging. He is in our midst and he sees. He says, You, you're a Christianeer, you're not real. You may believe you even have God fooled, but listen to what he says,
"These things you have done and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you." (Psalms 50:21 RSV)
God is saying, Now don't fool yourself. I am patient. I do not always act immediately. I do not always strike people with judgment the minute they do anything wrong. Surely it is well for us to remember that. Sometimes we hear people say, "Why doesn't God kill Mao Tse-tung and get rid of him?" But what we need to ask is, "Why didn't God cause my hand to shrivel when I took something that didn't belong to me yesterday? Why didn't he cut off my tongue when I said that sharp and caustic word to my friend this morning? Why didn't he blind my eyes when I let them dwell on something I shouldn't have, and played with my lust in my mind?" You see, if God is going to judge he must judge all.
But God says, "I am patient. Remember, friend, that I have let you go on because I want to reach you. I don't want you to be this way. I want to change you, I want to redeem you, I want to call you back from this. But do not misread my patience as indifference. You thought I was like you; that I didn't give a fig for these things. But friend, there comes a time when I must lay the charge clearly before you, put the cards right on the table. You can't go on this way. I offer you redemption, salvation. And remember, if you refuse it there will come a time when I must become your enemy. And if I, God, who wants to be your friend, ultimately is made your enemy by the way you act toward me, then tell me, who will be your friend in that day?
God has a thousand ways of leveling accounts, of settling up issues, and who can defend against him? Who can take on God? Who can outwit his purposes? God is an utter realist. I wish we could get that into our minds. He is not fooled by anything or anyone. He sees us exactly as we are. And he is no mere pimple-squeezer, either. He is not dealing with superficial things; he goes right for the jugular, right to the issues of life.
Now the closing word is one of promise:
He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; (Psalms 50:23a RSV)
When you come to church in a critical, complaining, griping, grumbling mood, then no matter how many hymns you sing or prayers you recite, you are not worshipping God.
He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me;
to him who orders his way aright
I will show the salvation of God! (Psalms 50:23 RSV)
Such a man is not always able to follow through as he desires, God knows that. But he wants to, "he orders his way aright." To him, God says, "I will show the salvation of God." That word, salvation, is a great word. It is a word that gathers up all God wants to do for us, in us, through us, and by us. All that he has to give us is included in that great word, salvation. God is offering to do this. God offers to produce "men who are not for sale, men who are honest, who are sound from center to circumference, and true to the heart's core. God is offering to produce men with consciences as steady as the needle is to the pole; men who will stand for the right even though the heavens totter and the earth reels; men who can tell the truth and look the world right in the eye; men who neither brag nor run, who neither flag nor flinch; men who can have courage without shouting about it; men in whom the courage of everlasting life runs still and deep and strong; men who know their message and tell it, men who know their place and fill it, who know their business and stand for it and attend to it; men who will not lie or shirk or dodge, who are not too lazy to work and not too proud to be poor; men who are willing to eat what they have earned and wear what they have paid for. That is what God is after. Men who are not ashamed to say, 'No!' with emphatic tones; who are also not ashamed to say, I won't do it, or I can't afford it."
That is what God wants, men and women, boys and girls, who have found strength in the only place where man can find it -- in the God who provides salvation for them. God wants to show us how it can be done. There is where we start -- every Sunday morning.
Oh, Father, help us to understand how real you are, how realistic you are, and to know, Lord, that we cannot fool you about anything. So keep us, Lord, from trying to fool ourselves. We ask in your name, Amen.