"Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel,
and I will testify against you: I am God, your God.”
Most fiction writers—if I can generalize—say that stories almost always begin with “what if?” What if one of society’s low-lifes were to be mugged on a busy street—who would stop? The Good Samaritan.
My guess is that Asaph, or whoever wrote Psalm 50, wasn’t necessarily thinking that way exactly, and probably didn’t begin this psalm with a question. My guess is that he likely wanted to draw out the dimensions of a vision he had. But readers—especially contemporary readers (like me)—can’t help but read a “what if” into this visionary tale: “what if” God almighty called his people together at some time or another to speak to them—what would he say?
Seventeenth-century Puritans, good folks born and reared on hellfire and brimstone, might imagine a different speech that we do.
And why am I using the editorial we? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d like to believe that God’s first words would be something comforting, something about love. Maybe there would be a rainbow, white doves fluttering, a soft flute.
But stories are nothing without surprise, and this one, Psalm 50, has surprises in spades; because the first thing God says, with the assembled—alive and dead—standing before him, hasn’t a dime’s worth of comfort: "Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God.”
There would be some quaking, I’m sure.
And there should be. The almighty is not sweet, he’s spittin’.
And there is some quaking, at least in me.
Because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe God is really angry right now, mad about the way we swear allegiance to his name and then simply neglect the obligations—even though we think we’re doing it all right—pardon me, even though I think I’m doing it all right. Maybe I’m not.
When I read this psalm, I am reminded of a most unforgettable story titled, “Conventional Wisdom,” by Stanley Elkin, who specialized in rogue-ish black humor. The story is full of the kind of cutting jokes that make you laugh as you bleed. When Ellerbee, a good man, dies, he’s transported to the after-life, where he meets St. Peter, then falls directly into hell, where he discovers, facing God, that the conventional wisdom was really the whole gospel truth. God tells him he’s on the hot seat because his store was open on the Sabbath, etc.
Ellerbee—like the reader—is just blown away.
The scenario of Psalm 50 reminds of that story because God’s opening lines are so awful, so scary, so intimidating, so shocking.
As the Bible can be, often, even though some of us—me included--don’t talk about it much.
Just when we get comfortable, He turns up the heat. Just when we want to curl up on the couch with a good book, he tells us to do his will. Just when he whispers he loves us, he throws us out of the garden. He wants more of us, this God. He wants more of us.
Read it and weep.
Sometimes that happens.