Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”.
There’s an old Sunday school song that begins “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” It goes on to say, “He is my father so they’re mine as well.”
Clearly the songwriter was inspired by Psalm 50, in which God says he doesn’t desperately need all the animal sacrifices the Israelites offer him because he already owns the cattle on a thousand hills. However, I’m not so sure that these cattle are “mine as well” I’m not heading out to the hills any time soon to bag a heifer for my freezer.
Psalm 50 begins with God summoning all the earth to a meeting. There he addresses his people, those who have agreed that they will live their lives in relationship to the God who provides for them. This agreement was formalized in the covenant Moses negotiated with God at Mount Sinai. It was ratified with an animal sacrifice–the blood of a bull from one of those thousand hills (Ex. 24:8). This covenant implemented a social economy to care for the Isarelites and a system of animal sacrifices to express their continuing relationship to God. In Psalm 50, God gives messages two groups of covenant members: those who honor their relationship with him, and the wicked who ignore the terms of the covenant.
God starts by reminding the Israelites that he is not their average local deity who depends on sacrifices to keep his table supplied with good quality meat. In God’s economy, sacrifices are not commercial transactions or bribes that manipulate God into producing what the people want. Instead, God offered the Israelites a relationship in which he looks after them as they honor him and create a human community in the pattern he suggests. While the sacrifices are acts of worship that God accepts, what he values most is the heart-felt thanksgiving that accompanies sacrifice (v. 14).
God also speaks to the wicked In Psalm 50. He points out they they try to use the covenant to manipulate him. They go by the book, they have memorized all of God’s laws. Because they bring the prescribed sacrifices at the right time, they imagine that God is obligated to take care of them. But God complains that they don’t value the covenant relationship. They ignore God’s words, they partner with robbers, adulterers, and slanderers. God promises that the wicked will be destroyed, torn to pieces like the sacrifices they offer on his altar (v. 22). God is not rewarding their sacrifices, he is responding to their hearts.
Our father, we understand a law of contracts–a clear set of requirements that specifies and limits our obligations. Much like the system of sacrifices that gave instructions for exactly what to bring at each new moon or feast day or harvest.
But in Psalm 50, you say that our duty is not limited by a contract, it is expanded by a covenant. Whenever we bring something to you, you want a heart of thanksgiving, a joy in relationship, our welcoming of your presence and goodness. Is it not enough for you that we attend church and sing in the choir and complain about the sermon and talk with a few friends after? Is your desire that we build a community where we love each other and you?
The sermons tell us to abstain from evil. But what you want is not mere abstinence, but growth in love and giving and relationship. That is a high standard, God. Perhaps we’re not capable of it.
We invite you then to come to us and change us. As Thomas à Kempis prayed more than 500 years ago:
“Let your love dissolve my hard heart. Let your love raise me above myself. Let your love reveal to me joy beyond imagination… And let me see your love shining in the hearts of all people, that I may love them as I love you.” (Thomas à Kempis, Christ for all Seasons, ed. P. Toon, quoted in Harper Collins Book of Prayers compiled by Robert Van de Weyer. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. p. 359).
I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.