“I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me." Psalm 50
It’s nowhere near an about-face, but the abrupt change in tone from verse 13 to 14 of Psalm 50 stops you in your tracks. The razor-sharp sarcasm has died—it’s just plain gone—and the God of the psalmist’s vision moves on to lay out once again the way back to his graces, as he has a thousand times before.
It's like divine exhaustion: “Go ahead and sacrifice your best, do what you’ve promised me you would do, and, when you need me, call”—that’s what he’s saying. You know the way, he says, now do it right for once. Don’t phony it up with spiritual pretensions or try to out-muscle each other in righteousness. Worship me and not yourselves. Be done with your snake-oil posturing. Get it right, okay?
Once upon a time--only once that I remember--I chewed out students in class. Two of them were chatting—as they’d done before, too often—and I just plain blew up, went ballistic, as they say. I reamed them a new orifice or two in language unbecoming of a Christian teacher.
And I knew it right away. It’s a wonder I made it through a long class discussion afterwards, a wonder that anyone did; but the class kept going, on Hawthorne, a short story. Later, I apologized—not for telling them to be quiet, but for the sarcasm, the venom in the rebuke.
There’s no apology in this psalm, but I swear, on the basis of my own behavior, I can hear a God I recognize in these verses. Listen again to the angry rhetoric of the preceding verse: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” That’s no sweet, small voice.
But that anger falls away, the smart-lipped sarcasm disappears. Honestly, it’s a weary God one hears in this verse, a God whose probably dispensed these same words a thousand times before, but knows, darn well, that there’s nothing new he can say or do.
“Just do it,” he seems to be advising, “but do it right, okay?” I swear I can feel the guilt in the way this verse opens up, the same guilt I felt after lashing out at a couple of students who shouldn’t have been talking.
Is this really God? Does the creator of heaven and earth sometimes feel guilty? Of course not. It’s an artist’s conception.
Does that mean God would not act that way—so, well, humanly? The answer to that question is, nobody knows.
What is undeniably true about this whole passage is that we get things wrong—time after time after time, we get things wrong. We do it wrong, too. We often do it wrong. No, we always do it wrong.
But here’s the stupendous miracle of the Psalm, the whole blessed story, and gospel itself—here’s the whole truth and nothing but: he still loves us.
That’s the story he tells us at Christmas and Easter and every day of our bloomin’ lives, time and time again. Here’s the gospel truth: even though we mess up all the time. He loves us. Even if our worship is sham-ish, our promises soon forgotten, he loves us.