The Ritual and The Heart
I want to begin by asking you a question: What is the condition of your heart? Or: How is your heart doing? What is your heart like?
I’m going to give you a couple moments to think of an answer.
I’m guessing some of you answered, “Fine.” “Good.” Maybe your answer was “hurting?” “Broken?” I really doubt that any of your answers would’ve included anything like “stone.” “Deceived.” Maybe the answer should’ve been “devoted.” Or “thankful.”
Whatever answer you came up with when I asked the question, I hope you were able to be brutally honest with yourself about the true condition of your heart. Because according to Psalm 50, probably most or all of our hearts are not where God would want them to be.
This morning, we’re going to see a few things that Psalm 50 shows us:
First, we’re going to see that God is the righteous Judge.
Second, we’ll see what God’s judgment is on His people.
And third, and finally, we’ll see God’s warning and promise for us.
After that, I’m going to ask you the same question I just asked you. I don’t know if your answer is going to change, but I hope that we’re all affected by what God’s Word has to say to us.
About Psalm 50
Before we really dig in, there are a few small details I want us to discuss about this psalm first.
You probably noticed that before verse 1 begins, there are these words: “A Psalm of Asaph.” I wondered, “who is Asaph?” I’m guessing some of you did, too.
Well, in 1 Chronicles, we read about a man named Asaph who served at the tabernacle during David’s time, and his sons carried on his work after he died. Asaph was one of the singers/musicians who served before the Lord. As people would go up to offer sacrifices, they would likely hear Asaph and his buddies playing their stringed instruments and singing psalms. Asaph was the chief of these for a while, and was in charge of the musicians. David put him in that position.
Here’s another little nugget: If you’ve read through the psalms, or studied how the psalms are organized, the placement of Psalm 50 might confuse you. Because all of the other psalms that Asaph wrote are grouped together, from Psalm 73–83. So why is this one separate?
Well, the answer is pretty clear when you read psalms 48-51, that if fits in the flow of those psalms really well. Psalms 48 & 49 are psalms about Zion, the temple mount, out of which God shines forth. And Psalm 50 perfectly leads into, or prepares the reader for, Psalm 51, which Josh is actually preaching on next week.
These details aren’t super important for us this morning, but knowing historical or literary context is part of interpreting the Bible, so it’s always important to do that kind of work when we approach a text in the Bible.
So let’s get into the text now.
Psalm 50 starts with an introduction. Asaph first introduces us to the subject of the psalm, which is “The Mighty One, God the Lord.” The psalm immediately turns our attention to God, away from ourselves. He’s doing his job well.
So he’s introduced who the psalm is about. And if we keep reading, we’ll find out what the subject is doing: “The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.”
What’s God doing? He’s speaking. This is incredibly rare for the psalms. In my research, I found out that out of 150 psalms, there are only three (!!) in which God is the one speaking. In the other 147 psalms, it’s people doing the talking, whether it’s about God, or to God.
But in psalm 50, God Himself speaks. It must have been so incredible to be walking up to the tabernacle, or later the temple, expecting to sing songs of praise to God, and instead to hear God speaking to you.
This makes the psalm prophetic in nature. If I didn’t know that this is a psalm, I would probably guess from reading the whole thing, that it belongs in one of the prophetic books.
But here, in a psalm, God is speaking. But what’s He saying? Well, nothing really yet. He’s simply summoning the earth, His creation. He’s calling it all to Himself to be His witnesses.
God is the only one who can do this. He created the earth, and all that is in it, so naturally He has the power to summon it all to Himself. We learn so much about God when we read simple things like this.
Verse 2 tells us that God shines forth out of Zion. Zion is often called beautiful, or perfect. Here, Asaph calls Zion the “perfection of beauty.” But Zion, in and of itself, has little beauty. It would have the same amount of beauty as any other ordinary mountain. But because God chose Zion as His dwelling place, Zion is beautiful.
And notice the language. Asaph doesn’t say that Zion is shining forth. No, God is shining forth, out of Zion. Zion is beautiful because God dwells there and shines out of her.
Verses 1 and 2 are introducing us to who is speaking, and to who God is. Verse 3 introduces us to the idea of divine judgment. The verse is full of judgment language.
First, Asaph says that “Our God comes.” God coming out of His dwelling place, Zion, the temple, indicates that judgment is coming. God made His dwelling in the temple—or the tabernacle at the time this psalm was likely written—so when he came out, when he made his presence known outside of the Holy of Holies, it would have been significant.
We see this kind of language in Micah 1:2-4: “Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it, and let the Lord God be a witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.”
In Micah, God is coming to judge His people. The same is happening in Psalm 50. God is coming to judge His people, which we’ll hear about more in a little while.
Verse 3 also shows us that God is directly and immediately present: “Before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.” This language is that of a “theophany,” which is a fancy word for when God physically shows up somewhere.
We see this kind of language in Exodus, when God shows up on Mount Sinai in a mighty storm, when he communicated with his people through Moses. Exodus 19:16 says, “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast.” This shows us that God is physically present in Psalm 50; He’s right there among His people.
Verse 4 explicitly tells us why God has shown up physically, why He has come out of His dwelling place. And the reason He’s there is to judge His people, which is what verse 3 introduced us to.
He’s calling the heavens and the earth to be His witnesses, like a jury in court. He has some sort of judgment to pass on His people, and like many other times, is calling elements of nature to be witness between God and man (see Deuteronomy 30:19; 31:28; Isaiah 1:2-3; Micah 6:1-2). God calls the heavens and the earth to gather his people, so that He can pass His judgment on them.
See, the psalms, as I’m sure you’ll remember, were the hymnal for the Israelites to use in their worship at the tabernacle and later at the temple. So God’s people would have been gathered there to worship him, and yet during this psalm, they were hearing God speak to them!
God is calling his faithful people, those who made a covenant with him. God is specifically gathering the Israelites and speaking to them in this psalm.
Verse 6 tells us that God is the judge. He created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, so he appropriately is the only One who can judge them or any people on the earth. He is righteous, so He righteously judges.
Verse 7 introduces and begins the judgment. God is speaking, and he says, “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.”
This is covenant language. “O my people”; “I am God, your God.” These are reflections of the language God used when He established His covenant with Israel.
Hear what he said in Exodus 6:7, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,” or Leviticus 26:12, “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
This is re-establishing that the Israelites are the covenant people of God. They have obligations to uphold as part of that covenant. This would bring to mind all the commandments of the law, all the requirements that God has for them, all the sacrifices that they were to make regularly.
And they would likely be thinking about that, and thinking that they must not be doing good enough for God. “Oh man, we’re going to have to sacrifice even more, aren’t we?”
But in verse 8, God tells them, it’s “not for your sacrifices [that] I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.” Their sacrifices were unceasing. They weren’t doing them wrong!
Wait, what? God is judging us, but it isn’t because we’re failing to uphold the sacrificial law? Then what is He judging us for? But before they get an answer to that question, they’re told a few other things by God.
See, they were making all the sacrifices they were required to be making. But from what God says, it seems like they were beginning to misunderstand the purpose of those sacrifices.
See, in those days, pagan nations offered sacrifices to their gods, just like Israel offered sacrifices. Only, for these pagan nations, their gods “needed” their sacrifices. They were food for the gods, they kept them going. The pagan gods needed their sacrifices to survive.
The Israelites started to think like this, too. They started to think that God needed them to make these sacrifices so that God could live and continue to bless them.
But, God says two things about that:
First, he says that he won’t accept their sacrifices because he doesn’t actually need to. Because every beast of the forest is God’s, every cow, bull, goat, all the birds, everything belongs to God.
Second, God does’t need food. And even if He did, why would He rely on people to give it to him, when everything in the earth is His? He can just take what He wants when He wants it!
The rhetorical question in verse 13 is to reinforce the point that God doesn’t need their sacrifices for food or drink.
But then, He finally gets to the main point of His judgment: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.”
His judgment isn’t that they’re offering too few sacrifices, or that they’re doing it the wrong way. Instead, God’s judgment is that the Israelites are offering sacrifices for the wrong reasons.
God doesn’t care as much about their sacrifices, as much as the heart behind them. God doesn’t care as much about the sin offerings, as much as the thank offerings, which were voluntary, to show their dependence on God, and their true devotion to Him.
God wants His people to call on Him in their time of trouble, to depend on Him. He wants their hearts, not just their actions.
Because when our hearts aren’t in the right place, we start to look less like God’s people, and more like the next people God addressed in this psalm: the wicked.
The Judgment on the Wicked
At first read, “the wicked” might be thought of as people who aren’t part of the covenant community, or who were once, but have blatantly left God’s truth behind.
But when we read on, we hear that the wicked recited God’s law, and took His covenant on their lips. They knew the law, they knew God, they knew the sacrifices they were supposed to be making, and the kind of life they were supposed to live. But as we read on, we see that even though they knew this stuff, they didn’t live like they should’ve been.
God says to them in verse 17-20, “You hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, 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 stand you own mother’s son.”
They do all the things they know they shouldn’t be! God mentions three specific things in the 10 commandments: stealing, adultery, and lying, or giving false witness. They say they know God, but their actions say otherwise.
And the same is true for the rest of the Israelites. They make their sacrifices, they look like they’re doing the right thing, but their hearts are not quite in the right place.
God’s judgment on the wicked concludes with these words in verse 21: “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.”
God was having mercy on his people, and allowing them the opportunity to have a right relationship with him. But God’s mercy was being perceived as silence. And God’s perceived silence was being perceived as condolence for their sin. They assumed that because God hadn’t judged them yet, that He was allowing them to do what they were doing, and even that He was okay with it!
Because with people, our silence often does mean that we’re okay with what people are doing. Or at least, it means that we aren’t against what they’re doing. And the wicked assume that God is the same way. But now, God says, He is coming to rebuke these wicked people.
So God gives them a warning.
“Mark this”: listen here! This is true, so pay attention! “You who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!”
God warns his people that His judgment is coming, so they’d better get their act together. And if they don’t, they’ll be torn apart. They’ll be destroyed.
In Deuteronomy 28, God gave blessings and curses for when Israel obeyed or disobeyed God’s law. And here again, God is reminding His people of what will happen when they disobey. God will judge them, and tear them apart. They won’t make it through if they don’t start to live the way they said they will.
But, in contrast, the one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice, glorifies God. The one who orders his way rightly will see the salvation of God.
In verse 22, God’s warning includes this phrase: “lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver you.” This calls to mind when God brought Israel up out of Egypt, and delivered them from their captors.
Or, what about the time when God was going to destroy Israel for making a golden calf when Moses was up on the mountain. But Moses pleaded with God to spare them; Moses, in a way, delivered them.
For us, though, we know how the story ends. We know that God sent His only Son to deliver sinners from God’s wrath. So even though God warns people, He also reminds us of the deliverer He sent.
God promises that the one who orders His way rightly will be shown the salvation of God. Jesus ordered His way rightly, and ushered in salvation for all who believe in Him.
So what do we do with all this? Well, it makes me ask a few questions.
First, what is the real purpose of all of my ritual? Why do all the things I do?
Second, what do I think is the reason for everything I do? Am I misunderstanding anything about God, or the Gospel?
Third, what does God think about all of my actions?
And finally, to ask again what I asked at the beginning of the sermon, what is the condition of my heart? Have I become like the Israelites, who only do these things because I think God needs me to, or am I doing it as a response to what He’s done for me?
And one final note for all of us: We’re God’s people, right? We’re the ones who gather to praise Him, and to hear from Him. We don’t do it at the temple, because we are the temple (1 cor 3:16-17).
But we’re doing the same things that the Israelites would have been doing when they read or sang this psalm.
They were reminded each time they read this psalm that their hearts are not where God desires them to be.
So, as we gather each Sunday, as God’s people, let’s remember that our hearts are deceitful beyond measure, and let’s help each other.
Let’s ask each other, “How’s your heart?” And let’s be honest with each other about how we’re doing, and let’s encourage each other to seek the Lord.
See, God cares about the condition of His people’s hearts. We see it here, and in so many other places in the Bible.
But these kinds of lessons always make me ask, “how can I make my heart right?” And the answer, as we see in Scripture, is that I can’t do that. None of us is able to change our hearts. To soften our hearts to God.
But there is One who is able to do that. God is able to change our hearts. He’s the One who gives us new hearts, when we believe in Jesus. He’s the One who softens our hearts to His truth.
So I get it if sometimes you feel hopeless, or that there’s no way to change.
Well, I want to encourage you: it’s never too late. And if you’re desiring change, then that means that God is already softening your heart. But you have to continue to let Him soften your heart.
So if you’ve come to the end of Psalm 50, and you’re thinking that your heart needs work, then that’s really good.
Pray that God will soften your heart, and that He’ll help you be receptive to the things He has for you.
Turn to Jesus, who died to change your heart, to give you a new heart.
We’re going to end this morning’s gathering by singing “Refiner’s Fire.” As we’re singing, take time to pray the words you’re singing. That God would purify your heart, and make you new.