The psalm consists of four portions:
1. An introduction (divided off by the pause-mark, "Selah," from the rest of the psalm), announcing the "appearance," and calling on heaven and earth to witness it ( Psalms 50:1-6 ).
2. An address to the godly Israelites ( Psalms 50:7-15 ).
3. An address to the ungodly Israelites ( Psalms 50:16-21 ).
The psalm is ascribed to Asaph, the "chief," or superintendent, of the Levites to whom David assigned the ministry of praise before the ark ( 1 Chronicles 16:4 , 1 Chronicles 16:5 ). So are also Psalm 73-83. Some of these may have been composed by later Asaphite Levites; but the present ode may well be Asaph's own, since it "bears all the marks of the golden age of Hebrew poetry." Asaph's composition of a portion of the Psalter is implied in Hezekiah's command to the Levites, reported in 2 Chronicles 29:30 .
"The continuance of this dramatic scene," as Professor Cheyne remarks, "scarcely answers to the commencement. The judgment seems to be adjourned, or to be left to the conscience of the defendants.'' The faithful are summoned, and appear, but not to receive unqualified commendation (see Matthew 25:31-40 ). Rather they receive a warning. The strong and prolonged depreciation of sacrifice ( Psalms 50:8-13 ) necessarily implies that in the religion of the time too much stress was laid upon it. We know that, in the heathen world, men sought to buy God's favour by their sacrifices, some] believing that, physically, the gods were nourished by the steam of the victims, others regarding them as laid under obligations which they could not disregard. We know, too, that, in the later monarchy, sacrifice to so great an extent superseded true spiritual worship among the Israelites themselves, that it became an offence to God, and was spoken of in terms of reprobation ( Isaiah 1:11-13 ; Isaiah 66:3 ). Already, it would seem, this tendency was manifesting itself, and a warning from Heaven was needed against it .
And call upon me in the day of trouble (comp. Psalms 20:1 ). I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. The meaning is, "Then, when thou shalt offer unto me a true worship ( Psalms 50:14 ), if thou wilt call upon me in the day of trouble, I will assuredly deliver thee, and so give thee occasion for glorifying me."
The Judge, the judged, and the eternal judgment.
A psalm-writer whom we have not met before, appears to have penned this psalm—Asaph. But whether it was by him or for his choir is somewhat uncertain. " Asaph was the leader and superintendent of the Levitic choirs appointed by David ( 1 Chronicles 16:4 , 1 Chronicles 16:5 ; cf. 2 Chronicles 29:30 ). He and his sons presided over four out of the twenty-four groups, consisting each of twelve Levites, who conducted, in turn, the musical services of the temple." £ "It is remarkable," says Hengstenberg, "that the voice against the false estimate of the external worship of God proceeded from the quarter which was expressly charged with its administration. Asaph, according to 1 Chronicles 6:24 , was of the tribe of Levi." £ a But let the human penman have been whosoever he may, there is in this psalm so much of the sublime grandeur of a stern and inflexible righteousness, that we have therein, manifestly, the writing of one who was borne along by the Holy Ghost to utter words for God that should be suited for all Churches and all the ages throughout all time; so that it behoves us to listen to them as to the words of the living God, declaring the principles of eternal judgment. "In a magnificent vision the prophet to whom this psalm is due beholds the Almighty denouncing a solemn judgment against the degradation of his Name, and setting forth the requirements of a spiritual religion." £ In opening up this psalm, therefore, the expositor may well yearn to unfold it, "not as the word of man, but, as it is in truth, the Word of God." In that spirit, and with that aim, we hope to deal with it now. There are some ten questions to be asked and answered concerning this disclosure of judgment which the psalm so sublimely sets before us.
I. TO WHOM DOES THE OFFICE OF JUDGE BELONG ? In the sixth verse we read, "God is Judge himself." He allows none but himself to sit in judgment on others; for none else has the authority or the ability to do it. But he, whose great Trinity of names is given here, keeps all in infinite hands. "God," the Supreme Ruler; El-Elohim, the God of gods; Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel;—he it is who is thus enthroned and speaks with his voice, on the eternal principles which are the basis of his throne.
II. WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THAT OFFICE ? As here indicated, it includes the expression of his mind and will, as to the worship he requires, the conduct he approves or disapproves, the decisions he forms, the sentences he pronounces, the destinies he assigns. For long God may have seemed to keep silence hereon ( 1 Chronicles 6:21 ), but he will not be silent always ( 1 Chronicles 6:3 ).
III. WHEN DOES THE JUDGMENT TAKE PLACE ? It can scarcely be questioned that the remarkable words in 1 Chronicles 6:3 point to a specific time when God shall come to judgment, and when attendant on the judgment there will be great signs and wonders in the heaven above and the earth beneath (see 1 Chronicles 6:1 , 1 Chronicles 6:3 , 1 Chronicles 6:4 ). But three or four distinctive forms of God's judgment are indicated in Scripture.
1 . The judgment at the last day. This is brought before us in Matthew 25:31-46 .
3 . The judgments that are brought upon Christian Churches that are unfaithful. These are plainly enough shown us in the epistles to the seven Churches £
4 . The judgment that is ever going on in every visible Church—a judgment by One whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and who walks in the midst of the golden lamps. This is God's "eternal judgment" ( Hebrews 6:1 ), the principles of which never, never vary. What they will be seen to be at the last day they are now, seen or unseen.
IV. WHO ARE THE JUDGED ? ( Matthew 25:5 .) The heavens and the earth are called to be witnesses of God's judgment "of the covenant people" (Cheyne). "This psalm," says Dickson, "is a citing of the visible Church before God … to compear before the tribunal of God, now in time while mercy may be had, timously to consider the Lord's controversy against the sinners in his Church, that they may repent and be saved." "The psalm," says Perowne, "deals with 'the sinners and the hypocrites in Zion,' but it reaches to all men, in all places, to the end of time." It contains the message of Divine indignation to those in Israel who were not of Israel; it specifies:
1 . The superstitious —those who brought offerings of slain beasts in sacrifice, thinking that God accepted them as such, or who even, perhaps, stooped to the pagan notion that such sacrifices were "food for the gods." Hence, though there is no rebuke over any offerings withheld ( Matthew 25:8 ), yet there is severe indignation against the low conceptions of God and his worship with which these offerings were brought ( Matthew 25:9-13 ).
2 . There were the scribes (see Matthew Poole), who expounded the Law , but kept it not ( Matthew 25:16 ).
3 . There were those whose service was but a form—who vowed to God, but did not pay ( Matthew 25:14 ).
4 . There were the openly wicked, who sought by profession of religion to cloak their wickedness ( Matthew 25:17-20 ). Think of such a heterogeneous mass being collected together in one visible Church! Is it any wonder that "judgment must begin at the house of God"?
V. WHAT IS THE BASIS OF JUDGMENT ? ( Matthew 25:2 .) "Out of Zion God hath shined." As from Mount Sinai he declared his will in the legislation of Moses, so from Zion he hath declared his will in the proclamations of prophet, apostle, saint, and seer; and according to those principles of truth and righteousness thus proclaimed is God's judgment ever being exercised; according to them will it finally proceed. And according to the measure of light granted to men, will be the standard by which they will be tried. Fuller light on this theme comes to view in the New Testament. Peter's words ( Acts 10:35 ; 1Pe 3:18-4:6), Paul's words ( Romans 2:16 ; Romans 14:10 ; 2 Corinthians 5:10 ), throw a flood of light hereon, showing us that ere the final judgment comes every soul will come to know its relation to the Lord Jesus, and that according to its response will be its destiny. £
VI. WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPLES ON WHICH JUDGMENT WILL PROCEED ? Five of these are indicated in the psalm.
1 . That merely formal offerings are offensive to God ( Matthew 25:8-13 ).
2 . That no measure of religiousness will be accepted if iniquity has prevailed in the heart and life ( Matthew 25:16 ).
4 . That whosoever has ordered his life after the revealed will of God, will see God's salvation ( Matthew 25:23 ).
5 . That wherever the life has been one of forgetfulness and neglect of God, the guilty one will be confounded ( Matthew 25:22 ).
VII. WHAT ARE THE COMPLAINTS MADE BY THE GREAT JUDGE ? One is negative, viz. the absence of the worship of the heart; another is positive—hypocrisy and guilt screened under a profession of religion, and the thought being cherished all the while that they would never be detected ( Matthew 25:21 ).
VIII. WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE SOVEREIGN JUDGE ? A life of
Who does not see how infinitely such a life rises above that of merely formal lip-service?
IX. WHAT WILL BE THE ISSUE OF THE JUDGMENT ? Under varied forms of expression, the results are declared to be twofold, according to the main drifts of character and life.
2 . For those who are in the right—the salvation of God ( Acts 10:35 ; Acts 15:8 , Acts 15:9 , Acts 15:11 ). Thus under every head, though in archaic form, and with light less full, the very same truths are declared by the psalmist that were afterwards brought out more fully by Jesus Christ and his apostles.
X. TO WHOM IS THE CALL ADDRESSED TO HEAR ALL THIS , AND WHY ? ( Matthew 25:1 , Matthew 25:4 .) The whole earth is called on to witness and to watch the severely discriminating judgments of God on his visible Church; and every one is called upon to hearken, because it is God who speaketh. The Apostle Peter raises a momentous question in 1 Peter 4:17 , 1 Peter 4:18 . Whether we are ready to face the last judgment depends on how we stand in relation to that judgment which is going on every hour. Mote: After studying such a psalm as this, how vain does the question put by Roman Catholics appear, "Where can I find God's true Church?" For this whole psalm is addressed to God's true Church. Yet whoever, even "in Zion," is at ease, or formal, or corrupt, will find that not even membership in any visible Church will save him. Only those will be saved whose hearts are purified by faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.—C.
God the righteous Judge.
I. THAT GOD WILL JUDGE ALL MEN . Even now there is judgment. Every act of our lives has its moral character, and carries its consequences of good or evil. But this judgment is but partial and incomplete. Reason, conscience, and Holy Scripture proclaim a judgment to come which will be perfect and final. The supreme Judge of all men is God. He and he alone has the right and the power. Be has perfect knowledge, and cannot err; he has absolute righteousness, and cannot do injustice; he has almighty power, and cannot be prevented from carrying his judgments into effect. In the psalm the vision seems gradually to unfold itself till the great God stands before us in awful majesty and glory, "the Judge of the quick and the dead."
II. THAT GOD 'S JUDGMENT WILL SETTLE FOR EVER THE DESTINIES OF MEN . God comes to us now, but it is in mercy. He has no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but would rather that all should turn from their evil ways and live. But there is a great crisis near, when he will come as a Judge, and when all men shall be brought consciously before him for judgment. The judgment will be universal : not only Israel, but all the earth; but it will begin at the house of God. Unavoidable : there will be no possibility of eluding the officers of justice, or of evading the testimony of the witnesses. Conclusive : it is the last judgment, from which there can be no appeal, whose sentences are irreversible and eternal.
III. THAT GOD WILL SETTLE THE DESTINIES OF MEN ON THE GROUNDS OF ETERNAL JUSTICE . There is a hint as to the principles on which the judgment will be based in Psalms 50:7 . Everything may be said to turn on the kind of religion which we have. This is shown negatively ( Psalms 50:8-13 ), then positively ( Psalms 50:14-23 ). True religion is not outward, but inward; not formal, but spiritual; not conventional, but personal; not in privileges, not in professions, not in ceremonial observances, hut in the sincere obedience of the heart and life. It implies that God's love is supreme in the heart, and God's law is supreme in the life. Such a religion can only be obtained for sinners through Jesus Christ the Saviour. Where it really exists there is not only the form, but the power of godliness—in grateful thanksgiving and joyous obedience and adoring prayer ( Psalms 50:23 ).—W.F.
True religion and its counterfeits.
The great evil to which Israel was exposed was the separation of religion from morality. This comes out lamentably in their history, and forms the burden of much of the teaching of their prophets. So in this psalm, which contains a powerful demonstration of the worthlessness of religion without godliness. The psalm may help us to consider true religion and its counterfeits.
I. SUPERSTITION . ( Psalms 50:7 .) Nothing in religion can be real and true but what is based on faith in the living God. What springs from fear without knowledge degenerates into the basest idolatries.
II. FORMALISM . ( Psalms 50:8-14 .) The heading of this psalm in our Bibles is very true and suggestive. "The pleasure of God is not in ceremonies, but in sincerity of obedience." To this all the prophets bear witness. Even ceremonies appointed by God himself become not only worthless, but odious, when they are observed without faith and love ( Isaiah 1:11-17 ).
III. HYPOCRITICAL PROFESSION . ( Psalms 50:16-21 .) There is much of this always in the world—false profession, insincere obedience, unloving service. The evil effect on individuals, families, and society is terrible. With what righteous indignation are such hypocrites arraigned! and with what stern, resistless argument is the inconsistency and enormity of their conduct denounced!—W.F.
The day of trouble.
I. HERE IS A DAY THAT WILL COME TO ALL . You may not have hitherto known "trouble;" if so, be thankful, but prepared. The immunity of the past is no protection. Sooner or later it will be said to you, as Eliphaz said to Job, "Now it is come upon thee" ( Job 4:5 ). And this is well. To be without trouble would be to lack one of the chief disciplines of life, and to lay us under the suspicion of being "bastards, not sons."
II. HERE IS A DUTY URGED UPON ALL . "Call upon me."
1 . This duty is agreeable to our nature. In trouble we crave sympathy and help. As the child instinctively cries to its mother, so should we call upon God.
2 . This duty is prompted by our circumstances. "Trouble" not only causes pain, but fear. Under the pressure of need we come to the throne of grace for mercy and grace.
3 . This duty is enforced by the example of the good. They speak of what they have known. With grateful hearts they tell of what the Lord has done for them ( Psalms 77:1 ; 2 Corinthians 1:3 , 2 Corinthians 1:4 ).
4 . This duty is urged by God our heavenly Father. He anticipates our needs; he lovingly invites our confidence; he assures us of his readiness to give us help and comfort ( Isaiah 43:1 , Isaiah 43:2 ).
III. HERE IS A PROMISE ENCOURAGING TO ALL . The promise and the duty are connected, and both are to be taken together with what goes before (verse 14). It is when we have been living near to God, and have been daily performing our vows to him with praise and thanksgiving, that we are best prepared for the duty of prayer and the fulfilment of the promises. This promise implies what God will do for us, and what return we should then make to God. Calling upon God in trouble has an elevating effect; it brings us into nearer fellowship with God in heart and will and life. We will "glorify" God for being with us in trouble, as delivering us from trouble, as making trouble work for our good. —W.F.
False to covenant.
God comes to Zion, as he once came to Sinai, amidst fire and tempest, calling upon the heavens and the earth to be his witnesses, while he summons his people to judgment, in which he proclaims how they had been false to the covenant that was between them.
I. THE ACCUSATION . ( Psalms 50:7-13 .)
1 . They had forgotten the spiritual relations between them. ( Psalms 50:5-7 .) They were "his saints," "his people; he was God, even their God." And he had to testify against them. They had not acted up to the spirit of that relation.
2 . They brought him unspiritual sacrifices. Their heart did not go with their offerings. He did not complain of the offering in itself, but of the spirit in which it was brought.
3 . What they brought was no gift of their own. ( Psalms 50:10-12 .) Their offerings were his possessions, which he had in abundance.
4 . They had forgotten his spiritual nature arid requirement. ( Psalms 50:13 .) The flesh and blood of animals could not please or satisfy a spiritual nature.
1 . Thanksgiving. The gratitude and praise of the heart—a spiritual offering.
2 . The paying of vows. The vows that are upon us in consequence of our covenant with God —or fidelity , faithfulness.
3 . Prayer. "Call upon me in the day of trouble;" not only then, but specially then.
III. THE REWARD OF SPIRITUAL SERVICE . ( Psalms 50:15 .) "I will deliver thee in the day of trouble, and thou shalt praise me."—S.