Psalm 50: To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

What a wide variety of subjects are captured by Psalm 50!

For me, it addresses one of the most puzzling aspects of our redemption: sacrifice. Please allow me to make the subject as puzzling to you as it is to me.

I did not speak to your fathers, nor command them, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. This is what I commanded them, saying, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways I commanded you so that it may be well with you." (Jer. 7:21-22)

What? God didn't speak or command the Israelite fathers regarding burnt offerings or sacrifices? Yes, he did.

"An altar of earth you shall make me, and you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings on it." (Ex. 20:24)

God said this to Moses immediately after the ten commandments. In fact, this command about burnt offerings and sacrifices is just seven verses after the tenth commandment!

The only answer I can think of is that Sinai was actually several days after the Israelites left Egypt. Perhaps those several days make God's statement through Jeremiah literally true. What makes God's statement generally true is that he has always preferred obedience to sacrifice.

There's one more puzzle addressed by Psalm 50.

More Puzzling

In Psalm 51, King David tells God:

You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would have offered it. You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (vv. 16-17)

We all can understand this. David had committed adultery, and then he had murdered a friend to cover it up. God didn't want David casually burning up a bull for his sin. He wanted deep, heartfelt repentance. We understand.

But then why did the writer of Hebrews tell us that no one, including David, can be forgiven without blood?

By the law almost all things are purged with blood, and without blood there is no remission. (Heb. 9:22)

This isn't the place to solve that puzzle. I have a page on sacrifices, and I will eventually put one up on the atonement. (Until then, I do have an atonement page on Christian-history.org.)

I mainly wanted to introduce you to conflict of necessary blood versus unnecessary sacrifices because Psalm 50 touches on this.

Psalm 50, Blood, and Sacrifices

Psalm 50 begins with a glorious description of God calling his saints together so that he can "judge his people" (v.4). Who are his people? They are "those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (v. 5).

We know that on the last day, when we are all judged, only one sacrifice will matter, and that is the sacrifice of King Jesus, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

Despite this beginning emphasis on one sacrifice, Psalm 50 joins the rest of the history and prophets in strongly disparaging animal sacrifices.

At first, it doesn't sound that way. God begins with "I will not reprove you for your sacrifices" (v. 8).

How much better can things be? God must be satisfied with their sacrifices because he's not going to reprove them about them.

The rest of the Psalm gives us a different interpretation. God is not going to reprove them for their sacrifices because he is not interested in them! Let's look at the whole passage.

I will not reprove you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are always in front of me. I will take no bull from your house, nor male goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains. The wild beasts of the field are mine.
   If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

Notice the context here. God already has all the animals of the world. If he needed meat, he wouldn't ask the Israelites for it. He doesn't eat beef, nor does he drink goat blood.

In other words, God doesn't need sacrifices. God's statement about not reproving them is to tell them that the sacrifices are not what he is concerned about. Instead, he wants a sacrifice of thanksgiving. He wants us to follow through on our word. He wants us to turn to him, not other sources of help, in our day of trouble (cf. 2 Chr. 16:7,12).

God ends the Psalm by telling us that the sacrifice of praise will glorify him, and that his salvation is for those who walk on the right path.

A Final Note on Covenant and Sacrifice

It took the "death of the testator" to ratify the New Covenant (Heb. 9:16). Jesus opened the way for us with his blood, and God is going to gather a people who have entered into covenant with him through Jesus' sacrifice.

That sacrifice, Jesus for us, is the one sacrifice God cares about.

As for the others, he has told us over and over, and he tells us again in Psalm 50, that they are of little interest to him. He's not hungry, and he owns all the animals of the world. Why would he be interested in animal sacrifices?

Instead he wants a people that will offer the sacrifice of praise, and order their path rightly. It is a key truth, even in the New Testament, that obedience is better than sacrifice.

No Forgiveness Without Repentance

In verses 16-21, God describes the deeds of the wicked. He ends by saying that he will state his case "before your eyes" (v. 21).

Clearly, this is a reference to the judgment. One day, those who have lived wickedly will face the God of glory, and they will be judged to their face.

Through grace, God offers incredible power to be transformed (e.g., Tit. 2:11-14; Rom. 6:14). He has mercy for us if we fail here and there (1 Jn. 1:7 - 2:2), but he will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7). He will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:6). If we sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption from the flesh as opposed to eternal life from the Spirit (Gal. 6:7-8). If we live according to the flesh, we will die (Rom. 8:12-13).

After describing the deeds of the wicked, God issues a warning in v. 22. "Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you in pieces." It doesn't get much more frightening than that.

Balance

Every time I go through a Psalm or some other passage that discusses the requirements of a holy life in order to be forgiven or to offer sacrifices, I want to add a section on balance.

Most evangelicals have been taught that Jesus' death has bought them eternal life in heaven apart from works. It's not true, and I feel obligated to show them that there are requirements to get through the judgment and into the everlasting kingdom, even for Christians (Matt. 25:31-46; 2 Pet. 1:3-11; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Cor. 10:1-12; Gal. 5:19-21; Gal. 6:7-9; Rom. 8:12-13; Rev. 3:4-5; etc.)

Once I show them so many Scriptures, some give in and admit the truth, but to evangelicals the alternative to a free ride to heaven is frightening. If we have to put to death the deeds of the body to live eternally (Rom. 8:13), then how do we know when we've put enough deeds to death? If drunkenness is a work of the flesh that can keep us out of the kingdom of God, then what happens to a converted alcoholic? If he or she drinks just once after baptism, are they banned from the kingdom of God forever?

God is not that capricious. He asks us to forgive each other 70x7 in a day, how can he offer less to us? We know him as the God who will "abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7).

I am going to work on a page on the New Covenant which will try to explain a proper Christian attitude toward works and the judgment, a fear that is reasonable and not outrageous (1 Pet. 1:17). For now, I can direct you to two things to answer that question ...

When you read 1 John, you should read all his verbs with "continues in" or "makes a habit of" added on. For example, 1 John 3:9 reads: "Whoever is born of God does not sin." Because of the Greek verb tense, that translation is wrong. Correct is something to the effect of "Whoever is born of God does not go on sinning" or "make a habit of sinning."

As I have time, I will add an article on the Greek "continual" tenses that John uses throughout his Gospel and letters.

Where To Go from Here

I've already suggested a couple places, but you will probably find the Gospel of the King helpful after reading this page.