Psalm 50
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm, like the preceding one, is a didactic Psalm. But while the lesson of Psalms 49 is an echo of the teaching of the ‘Wise Men,’ that of Psalms 50 is an echo of the teaching of the Prophets: and while, in accordance with the characteristic method of ‘Wisdom,’ “all peoples” are addressed in Psalms 49, in accordance with the characteristic method of Prophecy the people of Jehovah is addressed in Psalms 50.

The Psalm is a solemn vision of judgement. It is finely dramatic in form. As in Isaiah 1 and Micah 6, Jehovah puts Israel upon its trial in the presence of all Nature. He is at once Plaintiff and Judge. The two speeches in which He exposes the shortcomings of His people are introduced by a prologue, and summed up in a brief epilogue.

i. In a solemn introduction the Advent of God to judge His people is described. As He came of old from Sinai in the midst of storm and lightning to promulgate the Law, so now He is represented as appearing from Zion surrounded by these symbols of His majesty to enforce it. Heaven and earth are summoned to be witnesses of the trial (Psalm 50:1-6).

ii. God speaks; and first He addresses the mass of the people, who imagine that their duty to Him is fulfilled by the formal offering of material sacrifices. He shews them that He has no need of material sacrifices. What He desires is the sacrifice of the heart, expressed in sincere thankfulness and loyal trust (Psalm 50:7-15).

iii. Then in a sterner tone He addresses the hypocrites who glibly repeat His laws with their lips, but shamelessly break them in act by gross offences against their neighbours (Psalm 50:16-21).

iv. The Psalm concludes with an epilogue of warning and promise (Psalm 50:22-23).

Thus the Ps. deals with man’s duty towards God and his duty towards his neighbour; with the nature of acceptable service, and the obligations of social morality. Its two main divisions answer to the two great divisions of the Decalogue. The whole corresponds to the teaching which was constantly being repeated by the prophets, and is briefly summed up in the sentence, “I desire lovingkindness, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The principle comes down from the first of the prophets (1 Samuel 15:22), and finds its most forcible exposition in Isaiah 1:11 ff., to which the Psalm is intimately related, and Micah 6:6 ff. The same thought is expressed in the Wisdom-literature in Proverbs 21:3, and Sir 35:1-7; and elsewhere in the Psalter, e.g. in Psalm 40:6 ff; Psalm 51:16 ff; Psalm 69:30 f.; 15; Psalm 24:1 ff. But none of these passages is to be understood as an absolute condemnation of sacrifice. Sacrifice was the recognised bond of the relation between God and men, though it was not, as men were prone to think, the sum and substance of that relation. The primitive institution of sacrifice was continued and developed in the Mosaic legislation. The covenant of Sinai was sanctioned by sacrifice, though it was not based upon it; the Decalogue contained no injunction to offer sacrifice. It is not the sacrificial system in itself, but the sacrificial system emptied of “its moral significance as the recognition of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the sinner,” and made a substitute for the higher duties of devotion and morality, or combined with a glaring defiance of those duties, which is denounced by prophet and psalmist as a thing which God hates. See Oehler’s O.T. Theology, § 201.

To what date is the Psalm to be assigned? Clearly it belongs to a time when sacrificial worship was scrupulously maintained, but a low standard of morality was united with punctilious ceremonial observance. We know from the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, that this was conspicuously the case in the eighth century b.c., and to this period the Psalm may most safely be assigned. Delitzsch indeed regarded it as an original Psalm of David’s musician Asaph, but the tendency to formalism does not seem to have been specially characteristic of that time. Some critics place it after the Exile, alleging that Psalm 50:5 implies the dispersion of the nation. But this inference cannot legitimately be drawn from the verse: and on the other hand, would any poet after the Return have ventured to call Zion ‘the perfection of beauty,’ in view of the past glories of the city and Temple which were never restored? Moreover Lamentations 2:15, “Is this the city that men called The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth”? combines Psalm 50:2 and Psalm 48:2 : and Psalms 97, which is acknowledged to belong to the time of the Return, is based upon reminiscences of this Psalm together with Psalms 47, 48.

This Psalm may then best be referred to the same period as the preceding Psalms. A somewhat later date, in the reign of Josiah, has been suggested, but the close relation between the Psalm and Isaiah 1 is in favour of the earlier date.

On the title A Psalm of Asaph, and the general characteristics of the Asaph Psalms see Intr. to Book 111, pp. 427ff.

A Psalm of Asaph. The mighty God, even the LORD, hath spoken, and called the earth from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof.
1. The mighty God, even the Lord] El Elohim Jehovah. The three names, representing three aspects of the Divine character, are combined to emphasise the majesty of Him with Whom Israel has to do. El represents Him as the Mighty One; Elôhîm perhaps (the original meaning is doubtful) as the Awful One in Whom are united all manifold excellences of Deity; Jehovah as the Self-revealing One. Elôhîm is His name as the God of nature and creation: Jehovah as the God of the covenant and of grace. The same threefold combination is found, twice repeated, in Joshua 22:22, in the solemn asseveration by the trans-Jordanic tribes of their innocence of any wrong motive in erecting the altar of Witness. It occurs nowhere else in exactly the same form, but similar combinations are found. See Genesis 33:20; Genesis 46:3, “El, the God of thy father”; Deuteronomy 4:31, “Jehovah thy God (Elohim) is a merciful God” (El); Deuteronomy 5:9, “I Jehovah thy God (Elohim) am a jealous God” (El); and similarly Deuteronomy 6:15; Deuteronomy 7:9, “Jehovah thy God, he is God (Elohim); the faithful God” (El).

It is noteworthy that two other names of God occur in this Ps. He is called ‘the Most High’ (Elyôn), as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe (Psalm 50:14), cp. Psalm 7:17; Psalm 18:13; and see Appendix, Note ii. In Psalm 50:22, Elôah, the singular of Elôhim, is used. This form is found frequently in Job; in Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 32:17; Isaiah 44:8; Habakkuk 1:11; Habakkuk 3:3; and in a few other passages; but elsewhere in the Psalter only in Psalm 18:31; Psalm 114:7; Psalm 139:19.

The rendering The God of gods, the Lord (Jehovah), is not probable, though its adoption by the LXX has given it a wide currency.

hath spoken] In the summons which the next line describes. He breaks the silence which has been misunderstood to mean indifference (Psalm 50:21) by proclaiming a great assize.

and called the earth] The earth in all its length and breadth, with all its inhabitants, is summoned to be the witness of the trial.

1–6. A solemn introduction, describing the Advent of Jehovah to judge His people. Of old He appeared at Sinai in the midst of lightnings and storm to give the Law: now He comes forth from Zion with the same tokens of power and majesty to enforce it.

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.
2. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty] This rendering is certainly preferable to that of P.B.V., ‘Out of Zion hath God appeared in perfect beauty.” Cp. Psalm 48:2; and Lamentations 2:15, which unites phrases taken from both Psalms. In 1Ma 2:12 the Temple is called “our beauty and our glory.” Zion is now the abode of Jehovah, where He sits enthroned upon the cherubim (Psalm 80:1). From thence, as of old from Sinai, He hath shined forth (R.V.): a word specially used of that dazzling blaze of light which is the symbol of God’s Presence. Cp. Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 80:1; Psalm 94:1.

Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.
3. In the preceding verses the Theophany is described as already visibly beginning. Instead of simply continuing that description, the poet-seer “imagines himself as an eager and interested spectator,” and prays God to come near and declare His will:

Let our God come, and not keep silence!

Fire devoureth before him,

And round about him it is very tempestuous.

See Driver, Hebrew Tenses, § 58; and for similar constructions cp. Psalm 41:2 (note); Isaiah 2:9.

Lightnings and storm are the outward symbols which express the awfulness of God’s coming to judgement. He is ‘a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 9:3; Hebrews 12:29) devouring His enemies; an irresistible whirlwind (Psalm 58:9), sweeping them away like chaff (Psalm 1:4; Isaiah 29:5). Cp. Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:18; Isaiah 29:6; Psalm 18:7 ff; Psalm 97:2 ff.

He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people.
4. He shall call to the heavens from above] Better, in continuation of the preceding verse, Let him call to the heavens above. The object of the summons is ‘that he may judge his people.’ Heaven and earth, the whole world of nature, are summoned to be witnesses of the judgement, for they are far older than man, and have watched the whole course of Israel’s history. Cp. Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 4:32; Deuteronomy 31:28; Deuteronomy 32:1; Isaiah 1:2; Micah 1:2; Micah 6:1-2. The poetical idea finds a strange equivalent in the conception of modern science that every action is recorded by a corresponding physical change, so that Nature is in truth a witness to the actions of man[25].

[25] See Babbage, Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, ch. 9., “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we inhabit.”

Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.
5. Gather &c.] To whom is the command addressed? Perhaps to the angels who are God’s ministers of judgement (Matthew 24:31), and by whom He appears attended (Deuteronomy 33:2); less probably to heaven and earth, which according to the analogy of the parallel passages, are summoned as witnesses. But perhaps no definite reference at all is intended, and no particular messengers are in the Psalmist’s mind (cp. Isaiah 13:2).

my saints] The word châsîd denotes those who are the objects of Jehovah’s chesed or lovingkindness. ‘saint,’ like ‘servant,’ as applied to Israel, expresses the relation in which Jehovah has placed the nation towards Himself, without necessarily implying that its character corresponds to its calling (Psalm 79:2; Isaiah 42:19). The indictment against many of the Israelites is that their conduct towards their fellow-men is entirely destitute of that ‘lovingkindness’ which ought to reflect the lovingkindness of Jehovah towards them. On the word châsîd see Appendix, Note i.

those that have made &c.] Or, those that make &c. The reference is not merely to the original ratification of the covenant with the nation at Sinai (Exodus 24:5 ff.), but to the recognition and maintenance of it by each fresh generation with repeated sacrifices. The previous line refers (in the word ‘saints’) to the divine grace which is the originating cause of the covenant with Israel, this line to the human act which acknowledges that grace and the obligations which it entails. It has been thought strange that the Ps. which depreciates sacrifice should recognise it as the sanction of the covenant, and it has been suggested that these words are merely ‘ironical.’ It is however impossible to regard them as merely ironical. Though the Decalogue contained no command to offer sacrifice, the primitive institution of sacrifice was sanctioned and regulated by the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:24 ff). Sacrifice had its divinely appointed place in the economy of the old Covenant, though not that which formal and hypocritical worshippers imagined. It could not be a substitute for devotion and morality; but its abuse did not abrogate its use. See Oehler’s O.T. Theology, § 201.

And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself. Selah.
6. Better (unless we alter the vocalisation and render, and let the heavens declare),

And the heavens declare his righteousness,

For God is about to Judge.

While the defendants are being gathered, the Psalmist hears the heavens, which have been summoned to witness the trial, solemnly proclaiming the justice of the Judge, as a guarantee of the impartiality of His judgement. This explanation is supported by the use of the perfect tense in Psalm 97:6, a passage which is obviously based upon this Psalm.

Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God.
7. I will testify against thee] Or, I will protest unto thee, of solemn wanting and exhortation. Cp. Psalm 81:8, another Asaphite Psalm.

I am God, even thy God] The words which stand at the head of the Decalogue, with God substituted for Jehovah by the Elohistic editor of the Psalm. Cp. Psalm 81:10, where Jehovah is retained. They express the relation of Jehovah to Israel, upon which was founded His right to give them a law, and now to call them to account for their neglect of it.

7–15. The trial begins. God is the accuser as well as the judge. Israel’s sacrifices are unexceptionable, but it is not slain beasts which the Lord of all the earth desires, but the devotion of the heart, exhibited in thanksgiving and trust. The people as a whole are addressed. The duty which is enforced is their duty towards God, corresponding to the first Table of the Decalogue.

I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me.
8. Render with R.V.,

I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices;

And thy burnt offerings are continually before me.

This rendering is grammatically preferable to that of R.V. marg. Nor for thy burnt offerings, which are &c., which gives substantially the same sense. God’s indictment does not relate to sacrifice: the stated offerings are duly presented. Continually seems to allude to the ‘continual burnt offering,’ which was offered daily, morning and evening. See Numbers 28:3 ff.

9ff. The owner of the vast herds of animals which roam the forests and range over a thousand mountains is not like some earthly king who comes and takes the choicest of his subjects’ possessions at his will (1 Samuel 8:16 f.). The phrase rendered upon a thousand hills may mean upon the mountains where thousands are. The construction in either case is peculiar, and it has been conjectured that we should read upon the mountains of God, as in Psalm 36:6; but the alteration is hardly necessary.

I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.
11. The wild beasts of the field] A peculiar phrase, found only in another Asaphite Psalm (Psalm 80:13), meaning probably all that moveth in the field, including the ‘creeping thing’ (Genesis 1:24 f).

are mine] Lit., are with me, i.e. are in my sight (P.B.V.), or, in my mind (R.V. marg.).

12f. If God had need of sustenance, He would not be dependent upon man for it: but a spiritual Being needs no material support.

If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.
12. the world is mine &c.] Cp. Psalm 24:1; Psalm 89:11; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 10:14; Job 41:11; 1 Corinthians 10:26.

Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
13. Such a gross and material notion of sacrifice was common in heathen countries, and the survival of the phrase ‘bread’ or ‘food of Jehovah’ seems to indicate that it once existed even in Israel. See Leviticus 3:11; Leviticus 21:6; Leviticus 21:8; Leviticus 21:17; Leviticus 21:21; &c. See Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 207.

Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High:
14. Offer &c.] Lit., sacrifice unto God thanksgiving: hence R.V., offer unto God the sacrifice of thanksgiving. The context makes it clear that spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving are meant, not the material ‘sacrifices of thanksgiving’ (Leviticus 7:12) as contrasted with burnt offerings. Cp. Psalm 69:30 f; Psalm 51:17; Hosea 14:2.

and pay &c.] i.e., by such spiritual sacrifice thou shalt discharge thy vows (Leviticus 7:16). Cp. Psalm 61:8.

14, 15. What sacrifice then does God desire? Not the material sacrifices of the altar, but the offering of the heart.

And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.
15. call upon me &c.] Prayer is the proof of trust. Cp. Psalm 20:1; yet note that that Psalm contains a reference to the acceptableness of material sacrifice (Psalm 50:3).

The LXX. here inserts a Selah, which would appropriately mark the close of this division of the Ps. Cp. Psalm 50:6.

But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?
16. What meanest thou by rehearsing my statutes, and by having taken (R.V. rightly, and that thou hast taken) my covenant in thy mouth? The people had pledged themselves to observe the conditions of the covenant as laid down in the ‘book of the covenant,’ of which the Decalogue (‘the tables of the covenant’) was the first and most important part (Exodus 24:7), and these men professed to recognise their duty as Israelites. Cp. Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8.

16–21. In the preceding verses God has reproved the formalist:—the man who regarded the offering of sacrifice as the essence of religion. He now turns to address the wicked man:—the hypocrite, who repeated His commandments and professed allegiance to Him, while he deliberately set those commandments at defiance by his conduct. To him God adopts a sterner tone. The offences with which he is charged are breaches of the commandments of the second Table of the Decalogue, neglect of the simplest moral duties toward his neighbour. The general reproof in Psalm 50:16-17 is followed by specific charges of breaking the eighth, seventh, and ninth commandments, and the address concludes with a stern warning, Psalm 50:21. Comp. generally Hosea 4:1-2; Romans 2:17-24.

Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee.
17. instruction] Or, correction; the whole discipline of moral education; a word occurring here only in the Psalter, but common in Proverbs, where it is the mark of the fool and the scorner to despise instruction. Cp. Deuteronomy 8:5; Deuteronomy 11:2.

and castest &c.] Lit., and hast cast, flung them away out of sight and got rid of them. Contrast David’s behaviour, Psalm 18:22. My words includes all God’s commandments, but points especially to the ‘ten words’ of the Decalogue (Deuteronomy 4:13; cp. Exodus 20:1).

When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers.
18. then thou consentedst with him] The original is stronger: thou didst delight thyself with him, didst gladly associate with him. Cf. Job 34:9. R.V. omits then. The LXX vocalises the consonants differently and renders, thou didst run along with him (cp. Proverbs 1:16): but the Massoretic reading is preferable.

and hast been partaker &c.] Lit., and thy portion was with adulterers: thou didst make common cause with them, condoning and sharing their sin.

Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit.
19. Thou hast let loose thy mouth for evil,

And thy tongue contriveth deceit.

Giving way to unbridled speech, evil in substance and mischievous in aim: contriving a whole structure of deliberate falsehoods.

Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son.
20. Thou sittest emphasises the deliberateness of the slander. Cp. “the session of scorners,” i. 1. Thy brother might mean any Israelite; but the alternative thine own mother’s son (cp. Psalm 69:8, note) in the parallel line indicates that it is to be understood literally. The Psalmist describes a state of moral degeneracy in which even the closest ties of kinship are ignored. Cp. Micah 7:6; Jeremiah 9:4.

thou slanderest] Lit. dost allege a fault against. This rendering suits the parallelism, but the phrase (which occurs here only) is of uncertain meaning, and may mean givest a thrust against (R.V. marg.), or, settest a stumbling block for.

These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.
21. When thou didst these things, and I kept silence, refraining from immediate condemnation of thy conduct by condign punishment, thou didst mistake longsuffering for indifference, and think that I cared as little as thyself for the laws of morality.

that I was] This rendering hardly represents the original, which means that I should be or prove myself. It is the same word Ehyeh, I am, or I will be, which is found in Exodus 3:14, in God’s proclamation of Himself as the Self-revealing One, ‘I will be that I will be.’ The wicked man degrades his conception of God into a reflection of himself, and fancies that Jehovah as He reveals Himself will prove to be only like a man.

set them in order] All the offences of which thou art guilty. The word is a forensic term, used of drawing up the various counts of an indictment. Cp. Job 23:4; Job 33:5.

Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.
22. ye that forget God] Elôah: see note on Psalm 50:1. For the phrase cp. Psalm 9:17; Job 8:13; and for the thought, Psalm 10:4.

lest I tear &c.] Like a lion. Cp. Hosea 5:14.

22, 23. Practical conclusion, addressed to both classes: to the formal worshippers who ‘forget God’ by ignoring the spiritual character of the worship which He desires, as well as to the hypocrites whose conduct proves that they “refuse to have Him in their knowledge.”

Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God.
23. Whoso offereth praise] He that offereth the sacrifice of thanksgiving, as in Psalm 50:14. This line sums up the teaching of Psalm 50:7-15 on the nature of true worship: and it is natural to expect the second line to sum up the teaching of Psalm 50:16-21 on the obligations of moral duty. This it does if the rendering of A.V. can be retained, ‘to him that ordereth his conversation aright,’ i.e. takes heed to his way of life, or orders it in accordance with My commandments. But aright is not in the Heb., and it is doubtful if this sense can fairly be extracted from the text. Hence the rendering of R.V. marg. has been proposed, and pretareth a way that I may shew him &c., which is grammatically unexceptionable, but does not fit the context. Probably some slight correction of the text is needed, such as, He that keepeth my way (Psalm 18:21; Psalm 37:34), or, my words (Psalm 50:17; Psalm 119:17; Psalm 119:101), to him will I skew the salvation of God. Cp. Psalm 91:16.

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