Previous article in this series: April 1, 2015, p. 306.
Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself. Selah. Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee:
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?
In Psalm 50 God comes as Judge to sit at His bench on Mount Zion to judge His church’s worship. He has two charges to bring against two distinct groups in His visible church, the believing element and the unbelieving element. The charge against the believing element is formalism in worship. The charge against the unbelieving element is hypocrisy in worship. God will not sit silently by when heartless worship is given Him in His church.
The Charge of Formalism
God brings His first charge against believers in Israel. We must take careful notice of the language of the Psalm. For though God says He will do something very frightening to His own—testify against His people (v. 7), He takes great care to communicate to this first group that they are still just that, His people. He calls Himself the Lord, that is, Jehovah, the covenant God of His people, in verse 1. This first group is my saints (v. 5). He comes to judge His people. Therefore, this charge comes as chastisement to them—a very serious chastisement, for those who are called by His name are supposed to honor Him, but they are not. The fact that He tells them He is their covenant God makes the charge all the worse. If it is the neighbor down the street that testified against your reputation, that is not so bad. But when it is your Father speaking against your reputation, you feel utterly guilt-ridden. This is God, the covenant Father, who will not forsake His own, who loves them, but who still brings this charge; this is why the offense is so great.
The charge is formalism. People who are His own, have fallen into the sad routine of formal, heartless worship. He has come to unmask before all the world their ritualism void of love. That charge is brought in verses 7-13:
Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me. 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. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
The Israelites had fallen into a pagan notion of worship. Part of pagan worship was the offering of sacrifices. But when pagans offered sacrifices, they believed that their god was lacking something and that their sacrifices filled that lack. The imagined pagan god could not care less about the hearts of the people who brought him sacrifices, just as long as they did the right thing, went through the right motions and brought the right sacrifice. The purpose was merely to satisfy a hunger the god had. There was no heartfelt love in the worshipper. By bringing sacrifices they were offering something to earn their god’s favor. Sacrificial worship was a work that earned the right to have the god leave them alone for awhile. And because it was that, worship was a purely formal thing. Their sacrifices were routine rituals that paid their god off for the time being. Offering worship to the pagan gods meant dragging yourself out of bed, bringing the god a sacrifice to keep him off your back until the next time, making payment so that you could have a blessing or two, and then going back to your normal, everyday business. There was no relationship, no fellowship, no covenant.
The Israelites had begun to think this way about their worship of Jehovah God. It probably happened gradually, and perhaps many of them did not even realize it, but they began to treat Jehovah as the pagans treated their gods. The problem was not in what they did. They brought the right sacrifices to Jehovah, just as He had prescribed. They did all the right things. They came for the morning and evening worship. They worshipped in the right way, the worship God had regulated in His Word.
And notice in the Psalm that God has no problem with that. He even applauds them for that aspect of their worship: “I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me” (v. 8). God says, in effect, “I have no charge to bring against you as far the things you are doing. I will not reprove you for the sacrifices themselves. You have done what the Word commands. You have followed the regulative principle as far as how to perform the sacrifices and what to do and when to do it. But here is the problem, your heart is far from Me when you are doing it.”
The Israelites had begun to think that the reason they were called to worship was that God needed their worship. There was something lacking in God that they had to supply. God needed that bullock and that goat. Worship was only about satisfying some need God has, as you pacify a baby by bringing him a bottle. Simply go to worship, get it done, and keep God happy, and then carry on with what we really care about in our lives. This is why God says to them in the text: “I will take no bullock out of your house or goat out of your fold.” In other words, I do not need these sacrifices you are bringing. They do not fill up some lack in Me. That is not why I command you to make a sacrifice regularly before Me. Besides, even if I did need the goat or the bullock, do you really think I would come to you for it? I own all of it already (vv. 10-11). I own “the cattle on a thousand hills.” I am God of heaven and earth. I am the Mighty One. I created the worlds in the beginning and all of it is Mine. Who do you think you are, acting as if you need to supply Me with something I don’t have. How could I lack anything? I am Jehovah God.
When Israel began to think this way, their worship lost its true motive. It lost its heart; they had fallen into a dead, cold formalism. When they began to think that their worship was for the purpose of giving something to God that He did not have, it became completely outward. There was no more heart to it than when you have to take the trash out in the morning or feed the dog. You just worship to get it done, and you carry on till next week when you do it again. It was all ritual, mere outward activity. And it ended up being a form of works-righteousness. The only motive to keep worshiping was that they thought this was the way they earned God’s favor until the next time they had to do it. They thought this was the work that God demanded and, therefore, they must fulfill it to earn the right not to have Him breathing down their necks until next week. There was no desire, no covenant life, no relationship, no heart.
What do you think? Would God be righteous to bring such a charge against us?
He has nothing to say, I am convinced, about the way we worship. He says to us what He said to the Israelites in verse 8, “I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me.” That is, “I have nothing against the songs that you sing, and the order of your worship, and the reverence of it. You are following the regulative principle of worship and that is good. You must, and you have. But has it become a mere heartless ritual to you? Perhaps without immediately noticing you have begun to treat Me like a pagan god.”
How easy to fall into this, but how dangerous if we do, if we think that God demands our worship because it supplies some lack in Him. He is God, perfectly self-sufficient. We do not come to worship Him because He is a deity that has lost His self-esteem. He does not need His people to sing nice songs about Him and make prayers to Him in order for Him to feel good about Himself. Do not think of Him as a mighty abused child, that just needs us to supply some lack in His psyche in order for Him to carry on with His job of ruling the world. He is Jehovah God, the Mighty One. He did not create this world because He needed to. He did not save His people because He needed them. He is perfectly at peace and complete in Himself. He is the Triune God, fully satisfied in His life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This world is not here to make Him feel good about Himself. We are here because His desire is to set such great grace upon His people, and bring them into His own state of perfect peace and fellowship. And unbelievers are here to reveal His wrath and justice as God.
Do not fall for the dangerous notion that our worship is a work that we do to make God be favorable to us, that we come to offer our praise in order to earn the right to have Him not be breathing down our necks for another week—keep Him happy, pacify Him until next time. Do not think that if we do not worship, something bad might happen. There is no better way than this to turn worship that ought to be a joy into an empty formalism. When we think this way, consciously or sub-consciously, then we crawl out of bed Sunday morning just to go through the motions. Give God His due, appease Him, make Him happy, maybe even sleep through part of the worship service, just so I can say I was there. Then I can buy Him off, and go home until the next time, and He has nothing on me. This worship becomes simply a ritual, a going through the motions, with no heart, no covenantal love and relationship, and no warmth. And it is not worship.
God does not call for an “either-or” worship. He does not call for worship that is either according to His Word, or worship that is from the heart. He calls for “both-and.” For worship that is both according to His own Word, and worship that is from the heart. Have we fallen into a dead formalism? Then God has somewhat against us. For this is the covenant God, and He wills to have and to give life, heart, relationship, and love. This is the first charge.
The Charge of Hypocrisy
In verse 16 God turns His eye to a different group of people and brings a charge against their worship. Psalm 50:16 tells us who this second group is: “But unto the wicked God saith.” This charge is not brought against believers who have fallen into formalism as the first charge stated. But neither is it brought against the wicked in the world outside the visible church. Rather, it is brought against those who are unbelieving in the church—the outwardly orthodox, but inwardly and completely unbelieving, at least for the time being.
And the charge is outright hypocrisy (vv. 16-20):
What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee. When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers. Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son.
These people were a part of the regular worship of God. They grew up in the church. They came and declared God’s statutes, and took God’s covenant in their mouth (v. 16). They sang the songs of the covenant; they spoke the words of the covenant. At worship, all looked good; everything was in order. They knew the right things to say and the right way to act. But when it came down to it, they loved sin and not God. Verse 17 says they took God’s words upon their lips, and then they cast them behind them—as if they did not need them! They hated instruction, though they went along with it in an outward show while in worship. When they left church and saw thieves, they did not steer clear. When they saw adulterers, they joined in (v. 18). The same tongue that sang the songs of Zion, later was given to corruption and lying (v. 19). The driving principle of their hearts was the pursuit of sin. They came to worship, but not to repent. There was no broken heart and no desire to separate from sin. They wanted sin; they loved it. They were a part of the people of God and knew that the only way to maintain that standing was at least to go through the motions. But they forgot one thing: the Lord sees the heart. Others may have been fooled, but God was not. A hypocrite is one who says he is someone that he is not. That is what these people were.
Are there any like that reading this article? Any that live like the world during the week, and then come to God’s house and act as though all is fine and dandy? God says, “How dare you come here and take the words of My covenant upon your lips with no love for Me? How dare you come and sing My praises as though it were no matter at all that you have no heart for Me and that your life is a life of seeking sin?” Young people, or young adults, does this describe any of you? Does the world have your heart, but God only your outward motions? It is one thing, God says, if you sin and come with a broken heart, a heart of repentance before Him. But to the people addressed by the text, God charges, “you participate with no sense of your sin. You go through the motions and you have all others fooled, but not Me.”
We will consider His sentence upon these two groups next time.