Previous article in this series: April 1, 2015, p. 306.
Psalm 50:3-4 Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him. He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people.
Psalm 50:7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God.
Psalm 50:14-15 Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High: And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.
Those who advocate a simple, reverent worship, as the early church did, as the Reformers did, as faithful Reformed and Presbyterian churches today do, are sometimes accused of having no heart in their worship. They are at times accused of formalism. Their accusers will point to their own often raucous services and will say, “Look, we are very excited when we worship, and you are not. You have dead, lifeless worship, and ours is full of vigor.” I challenge the notion that the accusers’ worship is always truly heartfelt. Without judging every person or every instance, motives are easily self-centered, when the goal is to attain a spiritual high. The focus easily becomes the person and his feelings and not God, which by its very definition precludes it being true, heartfelt worship. And while there is without doubt an experience, the purity and depth of experience will be determined by the theology, which today is all too often shallow.
Nonetheless, we must be careful not to prove the charge of formalism correct. For if there is not a heartfelt love for God in our worship, our worship it is not truly worship either. We are called to worship God in the way He commands in His Word, but we must remember that part of what He commands in His Word is worship from a heart that pants after Him. Worship is not merely outward but involves the inward motions of the heart. While getting whipped up into an emotional frenzy is not heartfelt worship, neither is simply going to church and going through the motions.
Simple, reverent, biblical worship for the child of God who understands what it is and knows the depths of the grace of God can and must be worship from the heart. Calvin’s worship in Geneva was even simpler than Protestant Reformed worship. Calvin believed it unbiblical to play any musical instrument in the official, corporate worship service. The Psalms were sung with tunes simpler than ours. Yet listen to this testimony of worship in Calvin’s church:
Shall it be said that the Calvinian worship was cold and impoverished?
Those who were present at the services have told us that often they could not keep back the tears of their emotion and joy. Singings and prayers, adoration, edification, confession and absolution of sins…all the essential elements of worship were there. And perhaps not less important, they were united in an organism that was very simple, yet supple and strong.1
Worship experience was sustained by a deep understanding of the Word of God and what was taking place in worship. The Word brought the experience of conviction and joy, and even emotion, at times. For the people knew and loved and were bound together by the Word. God in His law and gospel was their deep delight. Is that true among us?
Psalm 50 tells us that for all the other things worship must be, it must also be brought from the heart. It must be brought with the right motive, a motive that is only possible by understanding the gospel of grace. I close this series of articles on public, corporate worship with three articles of warning and correction from God Himself in Psalm 50 regarding the heart in worship. The true worship of God is the height of our callings as Christians. And that is why God does not hesitate to reveal Himself in Psalm 50 in all His glory and purity to judge His people’s worship. As the psalm puts it, “Our God shall come, and he will not keep silence.”
The God Who Judges
Psalm 50 presents to us a divine court scene. God Himself is presented as the Judge here: “for God is judge himself ” (v. 6). He is described as mighty and worthy to judge, as well as righteous in His assessment. In verse 1 He is given three names. They are translated as two in the KJV, “the Mighty God, even the Lord, hath spoken.” In fact, these are three names listed in succession: “The Mighty (One), God, The Lord (Jehovah) hath spoken.” He is the one who is powerful over all, who must be reverenced and honored, and who is the covenant God over His people. This presentation of God at the beginning of the psalm is like the presentation of a king to a crowd. A forerunner would come ahead of the king and announce the king’s arrival. And he would often give a string of names and descriptions. “The mighty King Peter, the magnificent.” Verse 1 is announcing before all the earth the coming of the Mighty (One), God, Jehovah, the King over all who will judge. Or, to stick with the idea of God as Judge, verse 1 describes what still happens when a judge enters court: “All rise for the honorable judge….”
God comes for judgment. Verses 2-3 tell us that He shines forth out of Zion, that a fire goes before Him, and that a tempest is swirling about Him. This makes us think of God’s coming down to the earth on Mt. Sinai. Then too there was rain and thunder and fire. Only now He does not descend upon Mt. Sinai, but He shines forth out of Zion (v. 2). Out of the temple, where He dwells among His people in covenant fellowship, He shines forth. His glory radiates from there before all the world. God is coming, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
All the world is called to come to these court proceedings. In verse 1 the mighty God calls the earth from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun, that is, from the east to the west. And all the earth responds to the call of God to be present as the Judge takes to His bench. But not only are all beings called from the earth, but they are called from heaven as well. “He calls from the heavens above and the earth below” (v. 4). All angels too must come and witness this day in court. No one may be left out, for God has come to judge.
God’s People, the Accused.
At this point there is something we are not at first suspecting in the psalm. Even though all the earth and all heaven are called to come to the proceedings, it is not all heaven and all earth that are on trial. Rather, God’s own people will be judged this day. “He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people. Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (vv. 4, 5). The heavens and earth are commissioned to gather God’s people, to round them up and bring them to court, for they will be tried before their God. These people of God are all that are in the visible church. They include the believers, but also unbelievers that are mixed in with true believers in the visible church. They are collectively called His people, for they are the visible body that engages in worship.
God has something to speak against that visible body. “Hear O my people, I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against thee” (v. 7). That is something you can imagine God’s church was not expecting to hear. It brings out the truth that is recorded for us in, “Judgment begins at the house of God.” As the apostle points out, the whole world that is called to come witness the judgment must be on guard as well: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” ( ). But He comes to judge His church first. There ought to be sober reflection in this for us, as we see God sitting behind the Judge’s bench in this psalm. “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him” ( ).
As Judge, God brings two charges in this psalm. Both are against aspects of the visible church. One charge is against the believing people in the visible church. The other one is against the unbelieving element in the visible church.2 Both charges have to do with worship.
This shows us the importance of worship to God. We have been saying throughout this series of articles that the chief end of man is to worship God. This is the most important thing we do. We have also said that flowing out of the public, corporate worship of God should be an entire life of worship to Him. This psalm confirms that notion. What drives God to call all the earth and all the heaven to court this day according to Psalm 50? The people called by His name have neglected to worship Him with a heart of thanksgiving and love. We will pursue these indictments next time.
1 Doumergue, quoted in William D. Maxwell A History of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982, 119.
2 That second charge does not begin until verse 16 with the words, But unto the wicked God saith….