Worship can be a contentious issue in the church; and from time to time people talk about the worship wars. And we have worship wars because people have strong views on worship and on the kind of thing we should sing in church. And we learn from this psalm that the Lord himself takes worship seriously. In fact, in this psalm the Lord is contending with his people about their worship of him and he’s bringing charges against him. In the first part of the psalm — verses 1 to 6 — the Lord appears as the judge to judge his people. Then, in the second part of the psalm — verses 7 to 15 — he brings his first charge against them. And in the third part of the psalm — verses 16 to 23 — he brings a second charge. And so, let’s study this psalm together.
Verses 1 to 6
Three different titles for God appear in the first line. In Hebrew it’s El, Elohim and Yahweh; and the NIV translates the line as ‘The Mighty One, God, the Lord’. There are times when a member of the royal family appears somewhere, and all their titles are listed. So, he’s prince of this place; and he’s duke of this place; and he’s earl of this place; and he’s lord of another place; and he a colonel and commander and commodore and so on. You can’t help but be impressed by all these titles which have been given to this one person. And by giving these three titles for the Lord, the psalmist is impressing on his readers the exalted status and the greatness of our God who is now summoning all the people of the earth. The phrase ‘from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets’ refers to all people everywhere. So, the Lord is calling the people in the east where the sun rises; and he’s calling the people in the west where the sun sets; and he’s calling all the people in between. And he’s summoning all people on the earth to come into the courtroom to hear what he’s doing to say to his people.
And the Lord is going to appear in Zion, that is, in Jerusalem, the city of God, which he describes as ‘perfect in beauty’. And from the city of Jerusalem, God’s glory shines forth. Think of the Lord’s glory-cloud, that pillar of cloud, which lit up the dark sky when he led his people through the wilderness. Well, the psalmist describes God’s glory shining like that again. And according to verse 3, our God comes forth and he will not be silent. He has come to speak out against his people. And he’s a terrifying God, because a fire devours around him and around him a tempest rages. Think of what happened when the Lord appeared at Mount Sinai, when there was lightning and thunder and the ground shook and the people were terrified. And think of the fire that came from the Lord to consume Aaron’s two sons who appeared before the Lord without the right sacrifices. The Lord our God is a consuming fire, Moses said in Deuteronomy 4; and the writer to the Hebrews repeated what Moses said in the New Testament. And so, the psalmist depicts the Lord coming as a consuming fire and a raging tempest. According to verse 4, the Lord calls on heaven and earth to pay attention and to see what’s happening, because he’s coming to judge his people.
And he gives instructions for his consecrated ones to be gathered before him. The consecrated ones are his covenant people. They’re the people of Israel, because God entered into a covenant with them at Mount Sinai to be their God. And do you remember? He gave them laws and commandments and regulations to keep, concerning how they were to live as his people and how they were to worship him. And he promised them blessings for obedience and he warned them of curses for disobedience. And so, here he comes now, to judge them and to accuse them, because it seems they have not done what was required. And the verdict he gives cannot be questioned, because according to verse 6, God the judge is righteous. That is, his judgments and decisions are right, because he himself is righteous and everything he does and says is right.
Verses 7 to 15
The second part of the psalm begins in verse 7 with the Lord saying:
Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, and I will testify against you.
So, he’s bringing his first charge against his people. And his first charge is this: they think God needs them; when in fact they need him. So, they think the Lord relies on them to bring him what he needs, when the truth is that they need him.
So, they’ve been bringing him all kinds of sacrifices, as they were required to do by the law. And presumably they’ve offered them in the right way, because God says in verse 8 that he’s not rebuking them for their sacrifices. They’re brought him all the required sacrifices; and they’ve offered them in the right way. They’ll followed the proper procedure. So, the Lord has no complaints there.
However, he then adds in verse 9 that he has no need of their sacrifices. He doesn’t need a bull from their stall and he doesn’t need a goat from their pens. He doesn’t need their bulls and goats, because every animal of the forest is his and all the cattle on a thousand hills belong to him. As Psalm 24 tells us:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it….
Everything belongs to him, because he made everything. So, he doesn’t need their bulls and goats, because he’s got lots of bulls and goats and he knows every bird and all the creatures of the field are his.
So, here’s the Lord saying that he doesn’t need anything from them. And that suggests that they had begun to think the opposite. They thought God needed them to supply him with what he needed; and so, he had to point out to them that he doesn’t need a thing from them. And so, he adds in verse 12:
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
If I were hungry, I wouldn’t need to say anything to you about it, because I don’t need you to supply me with food, because the whole world is my larder. And from what he says in verse 13 we get the impression that the Israelites believed that God needed the bulls and goats they brought him for food.
Now, in Leviticus 3 and 7 we read about the fellowship offering which the people were to bring to the Lord. Part of the offering was burned on the altar; and part of it was given to the priest; and part of it was given to the worshippers. And after making the offering, the priest and the worshippers sat down and enjoyed a fellowship meal together in the presence of the Lord. And in Leviticus 3, we’re told that the part that was given to the Lord was to be burned on the altar ‘as food’. So, you can see why the Israelites might have believed God needed these offerings from them for food. However, the Lord doesn’t have a body like ours; he doesn’t eat food the way we do; and he certainly doesn’t need food to sustain him. But he referred to the offering as ‘food’ to convey the idea that he and the worshippers were able to enjoy fellowship together.
But from what the psalmist is saying, it seems the Israelites misunderstood and they now believed God needed their offerings for food to sustain him. But the truth is: they needed him. And so, he says to them in verses 14 and 15: sacrifice your thank-offerings to God and fulfil your vows to the Most High. When someone was in trouble, they might pray to the Lord for help and at the same time make a vow to offer to God a thank-offering which they would fulfil after the Lord helped them. And so, the Lord says they should call on him in the day of trouble and he will deliver them.
So, they mustn’t they they’re helping him and that he needs their help. He needs nothing from them. Instead they must humble themselves before the Lord and realise that they need him. They need him to sustain them day by day and they need his help to deliver them from trouble. And the sacrifices they offer should be their grateful response to him for his kindness to them.
Believers in every generation are tempted to think that God somehow needs our praise. He needs us to praise him; and so he’s somehow dependant on us. And when we think like that, we can then boast about ourselves and the great service we’re giving to God when we come and worship him. Our attitude can be: ‘Look what I’m doing for God. Aren’t I great!’ But God doesn’t need us; and he doesn’t need anything from us. And when we come to worship him, we should come with humble and grateful hearts: humble because we need him; and grateful because of all that he had done to help us. He doesn’t need us, but we need him for life and breathe and for everything else. He doesn’t need us, but we need him to supply us with what we need for this life; and we need him to supply us with what we need for eternal life.
In the church, we have our worship wars, fighting over the songs we like to sing. But the Lord is looking into our hearts to see whether we’re worshipping him with the right attitude: and whether we’re humble in his presence; and whether we’re grateful in his presence.
Verses 16 to 23
In the third section of the psalm, the Lord addresses ‘the wicked’. Who are ‘the wicked’? Well, he’s not addressing the pagan nations, because he’s still addressing his covenant people. These are people who have gathered for worship and who recite God’s law and who take the words of God’s covenant on their lips. So, he’s addressing members of the covenant community, members of the church. And so, it’s worth noting that the Hebrew word used here is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to an Israelite who has sinned. And sure enough, these people may recite God’s word and they may take the words of God’s covenant in their lips, but they hate God’s instruction and they cast his words behind them. Instead of holding on to God’s word, they toss it away. The law of the Lord forbids theft, but they join with thieves. The law of the Lord forbids adultery, but they throw in their lot with adulterers. The law of the Lord forbids giving false testimony, but they harness their tongue to deceit and they slander one another with their words.
So, the Lord is addressing his people who have gathered for worship. And though they’re reciting God’s word in church, they’re not paying attention to God’s word and they’re not doing what he has commanded. They are members of the church who have gone astray.
And look at verse 21: for a long time the Lord kept silent. The Lord didn’t speak up to accuse them and he didn’t intervene in their lives to rebuke them or to discipline them. And because the Lord didn’t intervene in their lives, they began to think the Lord was just like them and didn’t care what they did. But now the time has come for the Lord to rebuke them and to accuse them. And this psalm is his rebuke; and he’s given it to the church to convict us of our guilt so that we will turn from our sin and seek to do God’s will again.
We all sin, of course, because all of us are sinners. But when we sin, we should confess it to the Lord and turn from it. And when we confess our sins to the Lord, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, for the sake of Christ our Saviour, who gave up his life to pay for our sins and to satisfy God’s justice in full.
But if we do not confess our sin, or turn from it, but if we continue in it, then we will bring upon ourselves the Lord’s displeasure and he may have to discipline us in this life for our waywardness and rebellion.
And so, here’s the Lord’s rebuke to his unrepentant people: and the purpose of the rebuke is to convict us of our sins so that we will turn from them. Consider this, he says in verse 22. Consider what I’m saying so that you will repent. Otherwise I will tear you to pieces with none to rescue you.
But the one who confesses their sin to the Lord, and turns from it, will receive the Lord’s pardon. And that person can do what we read about in verse 23. That person will sacrifice thank-offerings as an expression of gratitude to the Lord for saving him or her from the punishment they deserve. And, of course, now that Christ has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins, we no longer offer animal sacrifices to the Lord. Instead — and depending on Christ for peace with God — we offer to God a sacrifice of praise, which means we will declare to one another what he has done for us. —
And so, as we turn to God in prayer, we should pray for God to make us people who are humble before the Lord, because we know we need him for everything; and for God to make us people who are grateful to the Lord, because of all that he has done for us; and for God to make us people who hate our sins and who are quick to confess them and turn from them.