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Psalm 50 is a lot of things.

It is at once a reproach, a judgment, and a covenantal promise for God’s wandering people of Israel. It is pronounced by a long-suffering, all-powerful God, the One who created all that is yet seeks relationship with frail humanity. And it is a reminder to all of God’s people, across time and space: “This is what real worship looks like.”

Psalm 50 is a Psalm of Asaph, one of 12 recorded in the Jewish Psalter. According to several Old Testament sources, he was among the chief sacred musicians and temple singers in the United Kingdom of Israel. Asaph served under Kings David and Solomon, and he had the high honor of performing at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Indeed, an entire guild of temple singers was thereafter known as the “Asaphites,” and it is possible that one of them composed Psalm 50 in their teacher’s style at a later date.

Psalm 50 typifies the unique Asaphite writing style in several ways. It is not a song of prayer or praise, but rather one of instruction and reproof. “Do this!” the hymnist seems to say. “Don’t do that.” Psalm 50 also belongs to the “Elohistic Psalter,” a collection of Psalms 42-83 that primarily utilize the divine name Elohim (which can be translated as, “God of gods,” or “power over powers”) to emphasize primacy of rank in the Ancient Near Eastern pantheon.

Psalm 50 is subtitled in some English translations “The Acceptable Sacrifice,” and its stanzas form a festal song designed to explicitly remind worshippers: “Here’s what a good sacrifice really is.” Letter-of-the-law observation of the sacrificial offering system is good, but cultivating a relationship with the Creator of the universe is much better! What really matters, the psalmist reminds us, is heartfelt thanksgiving toward God and ethical behavior toward our neighbors.

Verses 1-6 serve as an introduction to the rest of chapter, establishing God’s bona fides to both present a case against Israel and call her to repentance. While God has endured much at the hands of faithless covenant partners, even in the midst of a divine tribunal God once more extends the possibility of repentance.

“The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

The psalmist here invokes three different names for God: El (The Mighty One), Elohim (God of gods), and Yahweh (the LORD). Clearly this God means business! Notably, Yahweh also represents God’s “covenant name” in relationship to the people of Israel; use of this divine moniker reminds the hearer of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In doing so, the hymnist utilizes a courtroom metaphor similar to those employed in Isaiah 1 and Micah 6. God calls the whole earth known to inhabitants of the Ancient Near East to bear witness, “from the rising of the sun to its setting [place].”

“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”

Here Zion refers to Jerusalem, the capital city of the United Monarchy (and later of the southern Kingdom of Judah), and specifically to the Temple Mount where heaven touches earth and God makes a home among mortals. “God shines forth,” describes theophany, God’s glorious revelation of God’s self through Israel in general, manifested in the Holy of Holies in particular.

“Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.”

The psalmist reminds us that God is both great and glorious, but also terribly powerful; the language used here evokes similarly conflicted feelings as Mr. Beaver’s descriptions of the the Christ figure Aslan the Lion in C. S. Lewis’s seminal The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The hymnist employs imagery perhaps intentionally reminiscent of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, as well as Jonah’s oracles against Nineveh and Isaiah’s repeated warnings to all of the inhabitants of the earth. “The God of gods,” a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest…”not a tame lion,” indeed!

“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!’”

Once more the people of Israel are reminded that God is, has been, and will forever be a faithful covenant partner. But the terms of the covenant also require Israel to offer sacrifices for her unfaithfulness. Here God also prepares to address two kinds of false worshippers: those who repeatedly observe sacrificial rituals but are not transformed by them, as well as those who pretend to worship authentically but merely offer sacrifices to cover up or excuse their own sin.

“The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah”

This is the crux of the matter: the purpose of this divine tribunal is not to judge and condemn the sins of Israel, but to expose their unfaithfulness and extend yet another opportunity for repentance and a return to right relationship with God and neighbor.

Out of Zion, it seems, God still longs to shine forth!

These are the words of the LORD.