You thought I was exactly like you: Psalm 50:21

Psalm 50 — Psalms of Asaph

In my introduction to 2001, I said that this year one of the themes of this blog this year would be worship. I have also lamented in the last year the lack of lamenting as part of worship. These next 12 psalms, written by Asaph, are not only laments, but the laments of the people. They are also prophesy, the word of God to the people.

We enter 2021 in the UK at a time when vaccines for Covid-19 are beginning to be administered but also the disease is on the rise and there are warnings that hospitals may not be able to cope. We need songs of lament for what we have lost, but also to hear the voice of God speaking and to heed it, whether the message is good or bad.

The Temple mount in Jerusalem today, showing the wailing wall,
Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy.

A psalm of Asaph.

The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
    speaks and summons the earth
    from the rising of the sun to where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
    God shines forth.
Our God comes
    and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
    and around him a tempest rages.
He summons the heavens above,
    and the earth, that he may judge his people:
‘Gather to me this consecrated people,
    who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.’
And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    for he is a God of justice.
Selah*

‘Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel:
    I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
    or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
    or of goats from your pens,
10 for every animal of the forest is mine,
    and the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know every bird in the mountains,
    and the insects in the fields are mine.
12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
    for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
    or drink the blood of goats?

16 But to the wicked person, God says:

‘What right have you to recite my laws
    or take my covenant on your lips?
17 You hate my instruction
    and cast my words behind you.
18 When you see a thief, you join with him;
    you throw in your lot with adulterers.
19 You use your mouth for evil
    and harness your tongue to deceit.
20 You sit and testify against your brother
    and slander your own mother’s son.
21 When you did these things and I kept silent,
    you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you
    and set my accusations before you.

22 ‘Consider this, you who forget God,
    or I will tear you to pieces, with no one to rescue you:
23 those who sacrifice thank-offerings honour me,
    and to the blameless I will show my salvation.’

Psalm 50 NIV UK

Psalm 50 is an odd one. It is in the second book of psalms, Psalms 42–72 and not with the rest of Asaph’s psalms in book 3. As ever I have checked on Jewish as well as Christian commentaries on the psalms and as ever they disagree with one another, but one I like is that Psalm 50 was moved to before Psalm 51, so that a song warning about judgement is followed by one which is a call for personal mercy and repentance. The psalms are not randomly compiled, there is a reason for the order they are in.

Psalm 50 is written in three stanzas:

Verses 1- 6 speak about God coming reenacting of the lawgiving on Sainai v1-6

to those who sacrifice properly v7-15

to the others v16-

But there is also a symmetry to the psalm, The first two verses and the last two, 22 & 23, have multiple names of God, verses 3 and 21 have the same symmetry, this time about silence:

3 Our God comes
    and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
    and around him a tempest rages.

21 When you did these things and I kept silent,
    you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you
    and set my accusations before you.

This prophetic psalm is carefully structured, in three distinct parts, the first and last flanking the middle one. That one is about the sacrificial system. The temple in Jerusalem was a place of pilgrimage, the centre of the temple was the holiest of holy places, where the ark of the covenant which contained God’s commandments was kept and that space was filled with the glory of God. Outside the holiest of holy place was the altar. Not a table as seen in modern churches but a place where animals were killed. The temple was nothing like a Gothic cathedral, it was a very large religious abattoir.

You would not expect someone like Asaph, who was a temple musician, to be against animal sacrifices; if he was he would very soon be out of a job, but the other part of the musicians job in the temple was to be an oracle of God. On this oracle God speaks and says:

  1. There is nothing wrong with sacrifices.
  2. God has no need of sacrifices

So if God has no need of sacrifices, what were they for? They are for the people. Ordinary people in a messed up world have a need of being clean, people who have given in to the pressures of a messed up world and messed up themselves even more so. I mess up frequently, so I need God. God has no need to be told, “You are clean,” but I do. God speaking through Asaph says the sacrifices benefit us:

14 ‘Sacrifice thank-offerings to God,
    fulfil your vows to the Most High,
15 and call on me in the day of trouble;
    I will deliver you, and you will honour me.’

Just because there in no longer a temple in Jerusalem does not mean we no longer need a sacrifice. God in his mercy and grace has given us a sacrifice, himself, come in the form of a man in Jesus the Messiah. The sacrifice is made and we can call on God in the day of trouble, even in the days of lockdown. The sacrifice of Jesus, like all sacrifices are for the people in a day of trouble.

People were getting it the wrong way around, bringing sacrifices because God had a need, and thinking they were good people. God says through this psalm that those who think they are good people because they offer sacrifices but live their own way are not good people at all. God is the only one who is good and he is compassionate and full of justice.

This message comes up a lot in the prophets too. Isaiah said, ““The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord … Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:11, 16-17

But I really like Hosea’s take, ““I don’t want your sacrifices—I want your love; I don’t want your offerings—I want you to know me.” Hosea 6:6.

The warning is for those who think their way is the same as God’s way, but you do not hear God. If you think God is silent it is because you are not listening.

Do you know God?


The Psalms of Asaph — next >

< Psalm 49 | Psalm 50 | Psalm 51 >

One thought on “You thought I was exactly like you: Psalm 50:21

  1. What a great thought and a clear explanation. I am really encouraged in my need to be rescued; because I mess up, that Jesus has made that sacrifice and I can call on Him/God.

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