Tuesday, July 9, 2013

5 Things You Can Do For God that He Can't Do for Himself: Psalm 50

One of the passages listed in today's at-my-own-pace Bible-reading plans was Psalm 50. To my surprise, the psalm led me to consider the possibility that God somehow has needs or desires that only His people can fulfill, or, put another way, He needs us to give him something that He cannot give Himself. In the end, I do think that there are some things that only we can give to Him, and if He doesn't need them, he so ardently wants them that, if we felt that ardor, we would say we needed them. And if He wants them that much, it must be that it would give Him pleasure to receive them. So in the spirit of giving you a chance to consider how you can give God a pleasure that only you can give to Him, I give you my thoughts on the subject here.

At the outset (vv. 1-6), the psalmist portrays God as "the Mighty One, God, the Lord" who "shines forth," who "comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages," and who "summons the heavens above and the earth, that he may judge his people...who made a covenant with [Him] by sacrifice." In verse 7, God says, "Listen my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God." It sounds as if this is going to be a judgment psalm, full of recriminations and sins. If I were one of the people He was speaking to, I would figure that I was in for a lot of fire and tempest for what I'd done wrong!

But God begins his testimony with what appears to be good news for all of His people (v. 8): "I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me." If I'm one of the Israelites listening, I'm thinking, "Phew! He knows we're obeying the Law! So what else could be wrong?" Rather than listing their shortcomings, however, God then turns their attention to Himself and His relation to their sacrifices (vv. 9-13): "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens," He says (v.9), because every animal, bird, and insect on the earth are His (vv. 10-11). The implication is that if He needed the sacrificed animals, He could get them in an instant.  Moreover, he says, and in a tone bordering on contemptuous (v. 12), "If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it." Besides, he says (v. 13), "Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?" The answer, of course, is, "No."

In other words, then, God seems to be saying that their obedience to the Law in terms of sacrifices and burnt offerings is good, but... it's not good enough; it's not the best; in fact, it's almost as though God is dismissing those sacrifices as worthless to Him. Perhaps He is saying, "Yes, you do the sacrifices, but you're really not sacrificing anything, since I made everything on earth and it all belongs to me anyway. So, don't think that that's good enough." Or, perhaps God is accusing the people of thinking that, in their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they're supplying Him with things He needs from them; but He has emphatically told them that they're not doing that, since He could get those things all by Himself, if he actually needed them, which he doesn't. In any case, if their sacrifices aren't good enough, what does He want? If He's talking about what He doesn't need, what does He need? If He wants something that's not His to begin with, what is it? What should they do?

God answers (v. 14-15): "Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me." In fact, it is so important to God that His people do these things that, after he goes on to address and arraign "the wicked person" in Israel (vv. 16-21), His remedy for their sin is the same: The wicked person must "Consider this...: Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me, and to the blameless I will show my salvation" (vv. 22-23); if s/he doesn't consider it (and, one presumes, do it), God "will tear [her/him] to pieces"!

What is it about this command to sacrifice thank offerings and so forth that seems to make its fulfillment more pleasing to God than all of the atoning sacrifices and burnt offerings?  God says that he wants us to give Him:
  1. Our thanks in response to every blessing He has given us; 
  2. Our obedience to His commands and will;
  3. Our integrity to fulfill the statements, promises, and vows we make to Him; 
  4. Our embrace of our dependence on Him in good times and in days of trouble; and
  5. Our trust in Him to save us today, tomorrow, and for eternity.
In short, God says, He wants us to give Him our honor. I believe that what makes obedience to this command more pleasing -- and Israel's apparent failure to do it prior to this lecture from God an affront -- to God is this: God wants from His people what we alone possess, what is ours alone to give, what we alone can give to Him, and what He alone cannot give to Himself. In other words, He wants each of us to sacrifice something of ourselves to give to Him, and He wants the pleasure and honor that accompany only such a sacrifice.

Each of the five actions contained in the command derives from one of our faculties as persons. In our human person-hood, we want to take all the credit for what we receive that is good (and we want to keep all we receive!), do what we want to do, be relieved of commitments we don't want to fulfill, be independent, and rely only on ourselves.  But when, in our freedom of will, we stop making ourselves the object of our obedience, thanks, integrity, dependence, and trust, and we transfer those faculties to Him, we are giving away parts of "our selves." We are, indeed, sacrificing parts of our selves, and we are the only ones who both have the faculties to be sacrificed and can make the decision to sacrifice them. Thus, when God receives those sacrifices of our selves, He is receiving something that He didn't have the moment before we gave it to Him. Each of us can say in truth, "He didn't have this sacrifice of thanks before, because I hadn't given it to Him yet!" And because God didn't have it, when He does receive it, He experiences something "anew." I believe He has a new -- or, at least, a distinct -- experience of pleasure, because He has received my necessarily unique sacrifice from one of His unique creatures -- me. So, in a very real sense (and I hope you'll pardon the expression), I've given a unique gift and a pleasing experience to "The Man who has everything"!

Some philosophers and theologians tell us that God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need anything in heaven or earth. They also say that God doesn't change, which would call into question whether He experiences distinct episodes of pleasure.  Whether or not he needs our honor to be as fulfilled as He possibly can be, I will leave to them. But this psalm suggests that God so ardently wants us to give him the honor that we possess -- and could place elsewhere -- that He has chosen to contrast the sacrifices of thanks and those of animals in terms of His needs. Either way, the fact remains that He at least wants us to give Him what He cannot give Himself, and it must be that when He receives any aspect of our honor, it gives Him a specific episode of pleasure that He otherwise would not have experienced.

There are many other themes in this Psalm that could be developed, but what I've written is all for now. So, dear reader, go be very bright light and very salty salt in this world, and give God a new gift while you're at it!